‘Gosford’ confuses but satisfies

Very rarely, and I do mean very rarely, does a director manage to get together a large ensemble cast of fine actors and create a good film. Attempts to do so are more than frequent – one has only to remember last year’s ghastly “Rat Race” to think of this predicament. However, “Rat Race” was not a good idea in the first place, nor was it filled with good actors. Rather, it was something that was jotted down on a wet cocktail napkin and then filled with decadent B-list actors.

Thankfully, that is not the case with Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park,” a masterfully made motion picture that takes an idea that is hardly original – a murder in a large country estate, many guests, everyone’s a witness, etc. – to another level. This film echoes of everything from the board game Clue to Jean Renoir’s 1939 masterpiece “Rules of the Game,” combining comedy and drama in a near-perfect mix. Note the “near-perfect”: this movie needed to focus on one or two things, instead of a hundred.

Robert Altman redeems himself from his moronic “Dr. T and the Women” with a story that, although gripping, sometimes feels that it lacks a central focus until 90 minutes in, when the murder finally occurs. I admit that until then, I had trouble following exactly who was who and who was whose servant and who was having an affair with whom and who needed a job and who was broke.

Basically, a bunch of British blue-bloods are invited to a shooting party at the country estate (aptly named Gosford Park) of Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife, Lady Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas), who the audience finds out pretty early on only married the lord for his money – he’s an arrogant jerk who brings his dog to eat with him on formal dinners.

Among the guests are Lord Stockbridge (Charles Dance) and his wife, whose importance I don’t remember, and some other people having marital affairs and going broke. Oh, and of course, there is Constance, the Countess of Trentham, played with great relish by Maggie Smith, who is not shy to show her distaste for everyone present and makes no effort to stifle her sniping remarks which attack just about everyone.

There is also an American there, Morris Weissman, who everyone thinks is quaint because he is a Hollywood producer and a vegetarian. His servant (Ryan Phillippe) doesn’t automatically hit it off with the rest of the army of hired help at the manor, especially Mary Macreachram (Kelly MacDonald), Constance’s maid who enjoys hearing all this gossip. Oh, and Derek Jacobi is also there somewhere, but I didn’t recognize him, and so is Emily Watson, playing the “sassy maid who shares secrets with Mary.”

My confusion was cleared up after 90 minutes, though, when the characters that were secondary started to leave the foreground to make way for those who were more important. Also, that’s when I started to realize that the murder wasn’t the most important aspect of the film. First of all, it takes forever for the murder to happen, and although at that moment there is good editing and writing so that the audience has a handful of very likely suspects who might have done the deed, shortly therafter the battalion of actors floods the screen again.

Right before the murder, in order to build up to it and create the emotions necessary for there to be enough people in the house who would want to kill the old coot, we have several revelations of characters’ past indiscretions, who they are and who they aren’t, and their troubles and desires. We see all of this after the murder and “downstairs” with the servants as well. But, by the end of the movie, when you finally know everyone’s name (or think you do), you’ve pretty much lost interest in what’s happening because you don’t know what is more important: the murder, the people or why Altman put in such a long scene of the servants listening to a guest playing boring piano music.

That is not to say that some characters do not stand out. Ryan Phillippe’s character arouses suspicion from the outset, snooping around the house and asking too many questions. Maggie Smith’s Constance is in every other scene, jeering and sneering and believing she is the only person in the house with any sense of sanity or class. Of the whole bunch, she is the one with the fewest things to hide.

Yet despite this, I had a couple gripes with the simplistic way that the murder was eventually “solved” – but to reveal this would possibly say too much and ruin the enjoyment of those who have not yet seen it. Let me put it this way: the murder and the fallout are interesting, but it’s not as good as an Agatha Christie mystery. Those wanting a tense mystery with lots of suspense may have to look somewhere else – this is definitely a light movie, less about the plot than about the characters.

So if you can bear a good hour and a half of deep confusion as you sift through fast-talking English accents (the fact that the sound effects were recorded at the same volume as the actors’ voices also does not help the movie’s understandability) talking about fifty main characters, you’ll find that “Gosford Park” is quite enjoyable and well-concocted. I can’t find any major plot holes, but maybe that’s because there are so many small plots following each person that it’s too hard to trace them. The production design is impeccable and certainly up to par with the best Merchant-Ivory productions.

You might leave the theater feeling you haven’t understood everything or everyone. After you shake your head, you’ll realize that a lot of it was filler. But in the end, only the important part remains, and you’ll see why this film has received such acclaim.