The opening credits of Robert Altman’s grandly entertaining Gosford Park are so thoroughly prestige-packed they’re funny. It’s a drizzly afternoon in the English countryside in 1932. As the camera hovers and zooms around the entranceway of a fusty gray estate, gliding in the patented, open-eyed voyeuristic style that Altman has employed since the early ’70s (that style isn’t dated – it’s timeless), Maggie Smith, at the full tilt of her dainty megalomania, exits the estate and climbs into a Rolls-Royce, and the names of hallowed British actors, old and new, appear before us in a kind of luxurious bounty: Alan Bates. Derek Jacobi. Helen Mirren. Emily Watson. Michael Gambon. Richard E. Grant. Kristin Scott Thomas. Charles Dance. And on and on. The movie might almost be winking at the fact that any single one of these performers could easily be the featured star of his or her own upper-crust period piece.
The wink only gets more pronounced when it turns out that the director has cast most of the venerable players not as lords and ladies but as butlers and housemaids. ”Gosford Park” is Altman’s ”Masterpiece Theatre” movie, all right, but it’s an elegantly topsy-turvy one – a succulent and devious drawing-room mystery that, in its panoramic way, takes a puckish pleasure in scrambling and reshuffling the worlds of upstairs and downstairs. That jackpot roster of esteemed thespians recalls the ridiculously oversize parade of celebrity cameos that Altman was able to summon for ”The Player,” in which he sent up the Hollywood star system by whipping it at its own game. In ”Gosford Park,” he does a comparable number on the universe of Merchant Ivory: He skewers it and trumps it at the same time.
The movie is set in a remote mansion whose aging proprietor, the crusty, lecherous, mostly reviled Sir William McCordle (Gambon), is playing host to a shooting party. His terribly bored wife, Lady Sylvia (Scott Thomas), is there, along with her two even more miserably married sisters. Other relatives, like the fragile, tippling snob Aunt Constance (Smith), have been invited, and so has a quietly gay Hollywood producer (Bob Balaban) and the matinee idol Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam). Each of the many guests shows up with a servant in attendance, and as these hired hands mingle with the house staff, presided over by the fearfully devoted Mrs. Wilson (Mirren), they gossip about their masters with an obsessiveness that suggests in-grown generations of bruised identification. (It has an especially resonant overtone in the age of celebrity.)
In ”Gosford Park,” the slaving and the ”entitled” classes are quartered in different sections of the house, but they’re no more separate than two sides of a pond. The whole way that Altman orchestrates his dense, sprawling, multicharacter style, with its liquid shifts in point of view, becomes his implicit wry commentary on the class system, which is that you can’t divvy it up into parts. The classes flow into each other – sexually, spiritually, familially. That’s the film’s drama and its meaning. The atmosphere, however plummy on the surface, is rich with corrupt and covetous desire. The pheasants, it turns out, won’t be the only sitting ducks.
”Gosford Park” delivers all of the manners and stately repression and after-dinner sherry-toast banter that audiences have come to expect from the latest poshly reverent adaptation of Austen or James. The fact that Altman, working from Julian Fellowes’ witty and intricate screenplay (it’s based on an idea by Altman and Balaban), simply made his up is part of the joke; he outclasses the typical Merchant Ivory production, and he does it with a fake pedigree. The droll aristocratic dialogue gets tossed off with the same sidelong flippancy we’re used to in contemporary Altman films, which is the perfect mode for a society in which scandal burbles beneath manners. The acid remarks aren’t trumpeted; they’re murmured and then swept under the rug. Altman invites us to revel in a culture of beauty and refinement and then, with a finesse that can only be called polite, he pulls up the rug.
There’s a murder in the night, and the movie takes a twist into Agatha Christie terrain, complete with the appearance of a dolt detective (Stephen Fry). Except that it’s all a big throwaway, since virtually no one on screen gives a damn about the dead man. That light-fingered acerbic quality is the reason that ”Gosford Park,” seductive as it is, isn’t finally one of the great Altman films. It never approaches the visionary passion of ”Nashville,” the scalding satirical audacity of ”The Player.” Yet it’s full of moments to savor. At 76, Altman has a spry mastery that’s inspiring. The acting, down to the smallest role, is superb (even Ryan Phillippe sparkles as a ”Scottish” gigolo), and to single out any one performance would be tantamount to ignoring 25 others. Let me just say that I took special delight in the graspy hauteur of Maggie Smith, the inscrutable magnetic glower of Clive Owen, and the walking-on-air charm of Jeremy Northam, who at one point tickles the ivories and turns a song called ”The Land of Might-Have-Been” into a sublime reverie of glorious old England – an England that, as the movie presents it, never existed. But we can all dream.