The latest opus from Robert Altman takes the audience on an all-encompassing journey into the highly structured environment of the English manor of the early 1930s. It explores the multilevel caste system present in this portion of English society and sets it against an Agatha Christy style murder mystery. Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and Lady Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas) are the hosts for a weekend shooting party. They have invited an eclectic group to join them, socialites, Hollywood people and other members of the peerage. For example there is Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith), the sister of Sir William. She is the grand dame of the group, full of pretension but completely dependent upon her brother for the funds required to keep her in the style of living she feels she richly deserves. Then there is Lady Sylvias sister, Louisa (Geraldine Somerville), who keeping with family tradition married for money. Aside from a few more of the upper class there is also Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), a gay Hollywood producer and Hollywood star and singer Hollywood star Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) who must literally sing for his supper. Normally this would be a large enough set of characters for even an Altman film but here the noted director of ensemble films adds even more, the servants. Head butler Jennings (Alan Bates) and the housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren), run the show beneath the stairs. They are dedicated to making sure every little aspect of live for their masters are as smooth as possible. When in the servants area they are called not by their own names but by the names of the ones they serve. The murder mystery is secondary to the overall feel of this film. What really struck me is the many levels of society both the upstairs and downstairs folk live. Its almost like God is playing poker; Lord beats Baron, who in turn beats Hollywood star. Butler is above housekeeper who is above maids and cooks. Whether above or below the stairs there are so many tiers to the social structure that is makes the military look like the boy scouts. The attention to detail is almost overwhelming. A man is assigned to measure the distance between each place setting at dinner, making sure te myriad of knives, forks and spoons are all lined up. The servants are almost invisible to the master class. As such they are the greatest source of gossip. When it comes time to figure out who killed Sir William a brief discussion with the servants show everyone wanted the old guy dead!
This cast represents the best British theater and film has to offer. They are with out a doubt among the best English-speaking actors of this time. While you may think that such an assemblage of extraordinary talent would result in each viding for the spotlight the opposite is true. There is really no stand out performance. This is true ensemble acting. Each actor plays off of each other to the benefit of the production on whole. Each member of the cast wears their role like a comfortable old suit of clothes. Especially good is the interaction between the upstairs and downstairs characters. There are times when the servants are invisible, standing by for the sole purpose of providing for their needs before they are even aware of having them. One telling scene is where the Hollywood star has to sing for his supper. While the gentry make snide remarks about the performance, one that most people would pay to hear, the servants scurry about just beyond sight dancing and swooning to the music. While many watching the film would prefer to be the upper class it is the servants that have far more enjoyment of life than those they serve. They take joy not only in the performance of their duties but in the simple things, a stolen moment for a smoke, a lusty encounter in a storage room or gossiping about the masters.
This is one of the better films of director Robert Altman. This is saying a lot considering the incredible body of work this man has provided to the art of film. Typical of Altman the emphasis is not on the plot. In fact, when the murder is revealed it is anticlimactic. The audience really doesnt have to care. While very odd for a normal murder mystery this film is no more a typical murder mystery than M*A*S*H was a war movie. Altman submerses you in the environment he creates here. Like a guest to a party such as depicted here you are initially overwhelmed by the plethora of characters you meet. As the film continues to enfold you, you get to know everyone, both the faces they present and who they really are and how they are really motivated. Few directors can merge sight and sound like Altman. This film is a lot like Nashville in this regard. The sounds are all around you. A footstep here, a tinkle of a glass there all adds up to the overall affect of the environment Altman created. During the time you are watching this film you will be in a great English country manor and privy to both the upstairs and downstairs life.
The disc is excellent, deserving of such an award winning film. The audio is presented in a full, rich Dolby 5.1. The video is a crisp anamorphic 2.35:1 sweeping widescreen. There are commentary tracks by Altman and the screenwriter, each providing insight into not only how the film was made but also how people like those presented actually lived. There is also several deleted scenes with an optional commentary and the usual making of featurette. Another featurette shows the great pains the producers went to in order to ensure the accuracy of the setting and characters. While this film did not do as well as many expected in the recent Oscars, that was only because it was up against extraordinary competition. This is a film that will carry you away to another place and time. You dont even have to concern yourself with the plot, just sit back and enjoy the ride.