The game of Clue never looked as good as it does in Robert Altman's Gosford Park, a light yet biting study of the English class system that filters Agatha Christie through the sensibility of Upstairs Downstairs. With icy wife Lady Sylvia (Kristen Scott Thomas) in tow, Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) hosts the kind of shooting party that can only end in disaster. Altman carefully dodges the screwball pitfalls that have come to define his more excruciating ensemble pieces (A Wedding, Ready to Wear). Friends, family and servants alike become implicated in a homicide yet Gosford Park cannot be taken as a straight-faced murder mystery. Death may constrict the physical proximity between suspects and force the revelation of family secrets yet the rules remain the same; by film's end, the hierarchical layers become as dense and duplicitous below the stairs as they are above.
Bitchy footman George (Richard E. Grant) witnesses the master's daughter, Isobel (Camilla Rutherford), in a close corner with guest Freddie Nesbitt (James Wilby). While the girl's contempt for George is obvious ("Don't worry, he's nobody"), by situating at least one servant in every upstairs scenario Altman fascinatingly emphasizes the pervasiveness of servitude. (Additionally, there are now eyes and ears as witnesses to every exchange of words and glances.) Far sadder than the family's need for constant pampering is the notion that the relationship between upper and lower classes is a co-dependant one. Elise (Emily Watson), the head housemaid, speaks out of turn by defending Sir William at the dinner table; her faux pas is her undoing yet the real tragedy is that she thinks herself worthless without servicing William (here, in more ways than one). Far more interesting is the all-encompassing nature of the rules. Interrupting the servants during their dinner-respite, the frigid Lady Sylvia is all peaches and cream; she's outnumbered below the stairs, an uncomfortable stranger in her own home.
Altman's camera is the star of Gosford Park, though it fares better below the stairs than it does above. His signature wayward close-ups prognosticate unseemly deaths, panes of glass emphasize the claustrophobic nature of the servants' daily work and mirrors stunningly implicate suspects of their crimes. Altman's cramped framing fiercely compliments the rigid hierarchy of power that rules and threatens to shatter the servant roost. Staircases become the literal divisions between classes while Altman's stoic camera glances up at and humbles his servants. Since Altman spends most of his time with the lower class, upper-class scruples are often shortchanged; some relationships remain unclear, no thanks to meandering business negotiations and an otherwise trivial blackmail. Lady Sylvia may have one too many sisters and guests at her party though Claudie Blakley is wonderful to watch as the poor Mabel Nesbitt, who's hen-pecked by the Countess of Trentham (the devilishly catty Maggie Smith).
Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), fictional Hollywood producer of Charlie Chan films, and his Scottish valet, Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe), are also present at the Gosford shooting party. As different as the rules are between family and servants so are the ones between Brits and Americans. Weissman is used to being served during breakfast (when the British usually serve themselves) while the cook (Eileen Atkins) is taken aback by the producer's vegetarianism ("They do things differently over there"). Weissman's phone conversations to California regarding the upcoming Charlie Chan in London production broadly feed the film's simple-minded, albeit charming, fondness for miscommunication and self-referentialism. Denton is viewed suspiciously by both the servants and the family. He's an intrusive figure in both the lower and upper sections of the home (below the stairs he harbors delusions of grandeur, above he appears to act out of turn). Soon after the film's murder, the character's true identity is fascinatingly revealed. No matter how innocent his intentions may have been, Maud's (Tilly Gerrard) words speak for themselves: "You can't be on both teams as once."