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With "Gosford Park," a distinctively American filmmaker revives the veddy, veddy British murder-mystery tradition.

Upstairs, Downstairs

It isn't easy to define "Gosford Park," the latest from master filmmaker Robert Altman. Is it a mystery? a satire? a comedy of manners? of errors? a meticulously authentic period drawing-room drama? Despite its refusal to be pigeonholed, two things are certain, "Gosford Park" boasts a sensational ensemble cast, and it ranks among the 76-year-old Altman's best works ever.

The late New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, in her review of Altman's 1975 masterpiece "Nashville," likened Altman's art to that of Fred Astaire's, "as the great American art of making the impossible look easy." With "Gosford Park," Altman may have gone Anglophile, but the results are still smooth and effortless. Like "Nashville" or his more recent "The Player," Altman's latest features dozens of major characters and numerous story lines.

It's 1932 and Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his younger, horse-riding wife, Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas), have invited a group of friends and relatives for a shooting party at their country estate. With the guests come their retinue of servants. Quickly, the film becomes an above-stairs/below-stairs comedy of manners with a murder thrown into the mix for good measure.

The murder, which arrives about halfway through the engrossing introduction of the players, doesn't add much to the movie's charms. Although it does give Altman a chance to tweak Agatha Christie by turning everyone on screen into an upscale take on "Clue"; more importantly, it allows Stephen Fry delightfully to natter around Clouseau-style and munch the scenery as an ambitious though somewhat dim Scotland Yard inspector.

As much an entertaining whodunit as a master's class on ensemble acting, "Gosford Park" works best as a subtle yet unsettling look at the British class system. We watch the film through the eyes of McCordle's servants, (there's nary a scene without a servant), most specifically through those of Mary (Kelly Macdonald), a new lady's maid to the dowager Countess of Trentham (the inimitable Maggie Smith).

Working from Julian Fellowes' terrific script, Altman's film wanders upstairs and downstairs, subtly drawing comparisons for us as the action meanders through lavishly appointed rooms to Spartan servants' quarters and back again. The hierarchy among the servants is as distinctly drawn and adhered to as those among the peerage above stairs.

In the drawing rooms and bedrooms, the intricacies and intrigues continue. Mabel Nesbitt (Claudie Blakley) must be shunned by the other guests, for not only does she eschew having a maid of her own, she's wearing the same green frock every night! Though distantly related, screen star Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) is treated more like a pet than a guest. But as the weekend continues, we see the two classes are not so different. For as night falls, the seductions — upstairs and downstairs — begin, with dangerous results.

It's truly an ensemble cast, and it is nearly impossible to pick a favorite or to choose the most outstanding performer. But Emily Watson's watchful maid Elsie deserves special note. So does Smith's dead-on peerless aristocratic turn; Thomas' snobbish, jodhpur-wearing lady of the manor; Helen Mirren's icy housekeeper; and Clive ("Croupier") Owen's dark and dangerous valet. Of course, Altman and Fellowes give us hints of what lies in each character's heart: some are dark, some are vacuous, some are brimming with goodness. The fun is in finding out who's who and what's what.

As confounding or complex as all these characters and plot lines may sound, the beauty of "Gosford Park" is that Altman presents them to us effortlessly. He melds their stories, fears and foibles with an ease that doesn't merely entertain but beguiles with a distinctively American

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