by Allan Fish
(US/UK 2001 138m) DVD1/2
Awfully long repertoire
p David Levy, Robert Altman, Bob Balaban d Robert Altman w Julian Fellowes ph Andrew Dunn ed Tim Squyres m Patrick Doyle art Stephen Altman cos Jenny Beavan
Kelly MacDonald (Mary Maceachran), Clive Owen (Robert Parks), Alan Bates (Jennings), Michael Gambon (William McCordle), Kristin Scott Thomas (Sylvia McCordle), Helen Mirren (Mrs Wilson), Maggie Smith (Constance Trentham), Richard E.Grant (George), Jeremy Northam (Ivor Novello), Ryan Philippe (Henry Denton), Emily Watson (Elsie), James Wilby (Freddie Nesbitt), Eileen Atkins (Mrs Croft), Derek Jacobi (Probert), Jeremy Swift (Arthur), Bob Balaban (Maurice Weissman), Stephen Fry (Inspector Thompson), Charles Dance (Lord Raymond Stockbridge), Sophie Thompson (Dorothy), Adrian Scarborough (Barnes), Geraldine Somerville (Louisa Stockbridge), Camilla Rutherford (Isobel McCordle), Tom Hollander (Anthony Meredith), Finty Williams (Janet), Trent Ford (Jeremy Blond), Claudie Blakley (Mabel Nesbitt), Frank Thornton (Mr Burkett),
It took a trademark ensemble piece to inspire Robert Altman to his last really major film, a return to the glory days of Nashville and Short Cuts. It was more than that, of course, but it was often mistaken for something it was not. It was not, and was never meant to be, a whodunit. There is a murder. Check. Everybody is suspected. Check. Yet who did it or why is merely an ends to a means, allowing Altman and screenwriter Julian Fellowes to weave a tapestry of a film that is worthy, if not quite of placing alongside Altman’s very best, then only fractionally behind it.
The plotline likewise merely serves as a means to an end. In 1932, an American film producer is invited by Ivor Novello to a society gathering at the estate of a distant cousin of his to allow him to do research for his next project, Charlie Chan in London. Along for the ride is his Scottish valet who, it transpires, is an American actor doing research of his own while trying to add a few romantic conquests to his resume. The host William McCordle is hated by all, from relatives, prospective and past business associates, even many of the servants. When he is then murdered – poisoned and then stabbed – there are any number of suspects.
And it’s here the problems start for most people, with Stephen Fry’s bumbling detective, who seems to belong in a 1930s variation of Mr Bean, a Hulot-like – or let’s say Will Hay-like as this is the 1930s – incompetent. He’s annoying but he’s meant to be, merely another thinly veiled nudge at the upper classes, in this case an inspector having the job because of who he knows rather than what he knows. Altman’s only interested in the conflict and clash between staff and servants, and there are knowing nods in the direction not only of Upstairs, Downstairs, but Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu (both films featured celebrities at home amongst the upper classes, both featured a murder and a mass hunt). It goes further, of course, and one must bear in mind the period setting – the early thirties – and the link goes back in cinema history to Cavalcade and in historical cinema to The Private Life of Henry VIII. Not a lot changes.
Altman’s undoubtedly helped by a gem of a script by Julian Fellowes and by the effortless editing of Tim Squyres – especially in that magnificent opening sequence of guests and servants arriving. And then there’s that cast. Philippe and Balaban may seem out of place, but that’s the entire point; Grant, Jacobi and, best of all, Scarborough, relish several juicy exchanges below stairs, Watson is a magnificent worldly maid, bathing with a fag in her hand like she’s Lady Muck, and Scott-Thomas, Gambon and Northam (sublime as Novello) require new words equating to perfect. Maggie Smith may be able to do this sort of thing in her sleep, but she’s still a national treasure, while Mirren once again shines as the perfect servant with a dark secret. I leave just one to the end, Alan Bates, in his last worthy role, joyously drunk below stairs as head butler because it’s him we see finally shut the doors on our little gathering. The most civilised treat of 2001.