Gosford Park ★★★

What happens when Robert Altman gets to direct what seems to be a pretty traditional old whodunnit set on an English country estate? I'm not sure it's a question that anyone at any point ever asked. The result, though, should not be a big surprise to anyone who is even slightly familiar with his work.

It's a bit more than just a straightforward whodunnit, as is to be expected when you pull in a cast of this magnitude. A gathering of the wealthy and, surprisingly, not so wealthy extended family, friends and acquaintances of Michael Gambon at Gosford Park, accompanied by their many servants and valets, turns murderous after Gambon reveals he is cutting loose some of the bottom feeders on his fortune in the gathering. Meanwhile, below stairs, much excitement is had at the presence of Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) in the party along with film producer Bob Balaban and his mysterious valet Ryan Phillippe.

The magnificent, largely British, ensemble cast has to be one of the most talented that has ever appeared in any film, but I actually thought it worked against the film to a certain extent. Trying to keep track of this huge cast of characters was slightly headache inducing, and in the case of Charles Dance and James Wilby especially, some of them end up getting next to nothing to do. But Altman was always going to do it like this as no-one handles an ensemble quite like he does, and even though one or two are short-changed, everyone here has their own story.

That he manages to keep a grasp on almost all of them for the most part is quite remarkable in a way, even if it is never as interesting as it could be. I found myself wondering how the brilliant Festen handled a similar storyline and managed to infuse it with far more intrigue, tension and humour than this does. When said murder does occur, the film takes a strangely almost slapstick comedy turn as bumbling detective Stephen Fry is called in to try and solve said murder.

In fact, the poor chap seems to have been lumbered with by far the worst role in the whole film and quite how Altman and writer Julian Fellowes thought this kind of role would fit a film like this is quite beyond me. The last half hour solves very little, in addition, with several characters seemingly disappearing with not even a hint of a resolution of their storylines and the film just sort of stops. And after over 2 hours of generally excellent characterisation and superb acting (especially from Northam and a deliciously cantankerous Maggie Smith) to position us for a satisfactory final push, it isn't really good enough.

I guess that the problem with such a sprawling cast is that it is almost impossible to resolve everything, but it is something that Altman has dealt with and succeeded with before, so I'm not sure he has much of an excuse. That said, I think I enjoyed it rather a lot for much of its running time, but at the same time it's far more flawed than it should ever have been.

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