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Gosford Park
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Length:2h 18mins
Cast:Robert Altman, Bob Balaban, Alan Bates, Charles Dance

After a long career as one of cinema's most offbeat chroniclers of American culture, director Robert Altman turned his eye on England and made his best movie since his `70s heyday. Gosford Park takes place on a grand English country estate in the 1930s. When the host of a weekend hunting party is murdered, everyone -- well-heeled guests and servants alike -- becomes a potential suspect in the ensuing investigation. An Agatha Christie-style murder mystery might seem unlikely material for Altman, but Julian Fellowes's Oscar-winning screenplay is more interested in examining the intricacies of the British class system than it is in whodunit. Gosford Park also allows Altman to do two of the things he does best: subvert a familiar genre and orchestrate a large ensemble of actors, something he accomplishes here to dazzling effect. The dream cast includes Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Michael Gambon as aristocrats, and Helen Mirren, Emily Watson, Clive Owen, Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi, and Richard E. Grant as servants. In the best Altman tradition, each character, no matter how limited his or her screen time, manages to create an indelible impression. Even pretty boy Ryan Phillippe, portraying a shady valet, delivers a surprisingly effective performance; the only weak link in the cast is Bob Balaban as a visiting Hollywood producer (ironically, Balaban co-produced Gosford Park). Altman uses his trademark techniques -- a roving camera and densely layered soundtrack -- to perfection here. Crucial information about the guests upstairs, who are never seen without a servant somewhere in the frame, is divulged through fleeting snatches of downstairs gossip. The result plays like a radical version of Upstairs, Downstairs in which the lives of servants and masters are fatally entwined. While not quite at the level of Nashville or the director's other earlier triumphs, Gosford Park -- which received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director -- proves that the 70-something Altman hasn't lost his punch. Kryssa Schemmerling

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