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‘Gosford Park’ is a gem

Cast shines in Altman’s drama/mystery/comedy

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GOSFORD PARK —**** — Kelly Macdonald, Emily Watson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ryan Phillippe, Clive Owen, Maggie Smith, Jeremy Northam, Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Stephen Fry, Alan Bates; rated R (violence, profanity, brief gore, brief sex, vulgarity); exclusively at the Megaplex 12 at the Gateway.Until "Gosford Park" came along, it was beginning to look as if venerable director Robert Altman had forgotten how to make a good film.

The 76-year-old filmmaker was coming off a string of disappointments (including the clunkers "Pret-a-Porter," "The Gingerbread Man" and "Dr. T & The Women"), which seemed to indicate his skills weren't just in serious decline but on a veritable landslide.

But "Gosford Park" is a crafty little gem.

The film is part social drama (something along the lines of the beloved PBS series "Upstairs, Downstairs"), part Agatha Christie mystery and part bungling comedy.

Realistically, such a mingling of clashing genres and styles shouldn't work. But the resulting movie is not only one of Altman's best, it's a refreshing change of pace from the all-artifice, no-substance pictures that have seemed to dominate most of 2001.

The film's title refers to a country estate where most of the action takes place. That's where young Mary Macearchran (Kelly Macdonald) finds herself.

As maid to Lady Constance (Maggie Smith), Mary accompanies her ladyship to the estate, where she meets its owner, Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon), and his much-younger wife, Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas).

The reason for their visit? It turns out Lady Constance's monied relatives are hosting a weekend party, as well as a hunting contest. But instead, the festivities become a platform for some long-reserved hatred.

It's also the perfect place to hide a murder, and nearly everyone is a suspect — including Sir William's movie star cousin (Jeremy Northam), as well as a variety of embittered servants (including Emily Watson, Clive Owen, Helen Mirren and Ryan Phillippe).

Refreshingly, Julian Fellowes' wry, witty script (written from a concept by Altman and co-star Bob Balaban) manages to address the class clashes without becoming too overbearing.

And though the film is perhaps 10 minutes too long, Altman keeps things moving at breezy enough pace that audiences won't really notice.

As for the members of his name cast, they're all so solid that it's almost unfair to single out one performance for recognition. However, as a wealthy snob, Scott Thomas is better here than she's been in quite some time, while Macdonald, Watson and Mirren all have their moments to shine.

Then there's Smith, whose happily clueless Lady Constance is a source of much-needed humor (though Stephen Fry also pitches in as a dim police inspector).

"Gosford Park" is rated R for violence (a stabbing, as well as some hunting violence), scattered use of strong profanity, brief gore, brief simulated sex and use of some crude slang terms. Running time: 137 minutes.


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com