(director: Robert Altman; screenwriter: Julian Fellowes/based on an idea by Altman and Bob Balaban; cinematographer: Andrew Dunn; editor: Tim Squyres; music by Patrick Doyle; cast: Jeremy Northam (Ivor Novello), Kristin Scott Thomas (Lady Sylvia McCordle), (Michael Gambon (Sir William McCordle), Derek Jacobi (Probert, Valet), Maggie Smith (Constance, Countess of Trentham), Tom Hollander (Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Meredith), Natasha Wightman (Lady Lavinia Meredith), James Wilby (Freddy Nesbitt), Emily Watson (Elsie, Servant), Alan Bates (Mr. Jennings, Butler), Camilla Rutherford (Isobel), Helen Mirren (Mrs. Wilson), Kelly Macdonald (Mary, Maid), Eileen Atkins (Mrs. Croft), Richard E. Grant (George, Valet), Claudie Blakley (Mabel Nesbitt), Stephen Fry (Police Inspector), Geraldine Somerville (Louisa, Lady Stockbridge), Charles Dance (Raymond, Lord Stockbridge), Clive Owen (Mr. Robert Parks, Servant), Bob Balaban (Hollywood Producer, Morris Weissman), Ryan Philippe (Servant/Actor, Henry Denton), Sophie Thompson (Dorothy, Servant), Laurence Fox (Lord Rupert Standish); Runtime: 137; USA Films; 2001-UK/USA)
“An Anglophile’s delight.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
It’s a perfect Agatha Christie whodunit type of film based on an idea by Robert Altman and Bob Balaban and scripted by Julian Fellowes that looks and feels like Jean Renoir’s 1939 Rules of the Game, but what makes it different is that it’s told from the servant’s view. The film’s master 76-year-old American director Robert Altman declared that if George Bush would get elected president, he would leave the country. While living in England he has made his best film in a long time, an intricate and crowded ensemble cast murder mystery film that consists of a mostly Brit all-star cast. It’s set in November 1932 in the English countryside, as the story centers on the relations among the different social classes from upper, middle and lower class backgrounds. The guests have come together for a weekend of bird shooting and to attend a dinner party on the fancy country estate of the wealthy Sir William McCordle (Gambon) and his wife Lady Sylvia (Thomas). A murder will surprisingly take place, as an unseen party puts a carving knife into the host and everyone is a suspect including: relatives, guests, friends, servants, and a Hollywood actor and producer. It’s a marvelously elaborate embellishment of “Charlie Chan in London,” only the inspector (Fry) investigating is not as skilled as Charlie Chan. He’s a bumbler who is more impressed with being in the company of the aristocracy and of them knowing his name than in solving the case. Though, to his credit, he does establish that Sir William was poisoned to death before someone stuck him with a knife, and that there were many people present who had reason to hate the despicable man.
The fun in this film is in the perfectly nuanced performances of the large cast, the director’s uncanny eye for detail in this period piece — whether it’s the vintage cars, the dining room settings, the rituals of the shoot, the snobbery of both the servants and the aristocrats, the class envy, or in the delicious gossip dished out and the revealing secrets that pop up about almost everyone during the course of the story. There’s also the behind the scenes struggles taking place of those shameless relatives of Sylvia’s wanting to live parasitically off the wealthy womanizing Sir William.
Sylvia married the sweatshop factory owner, who preys on his women factory workers, for his money and watched him grow more prosperous by profiteering from WW1. Now her entire family puts the bite on her nouveau riche hubby for their economic survival, including her acerbic tongued old-biddy aunt, Constance, Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith). She has an amusingly nasty thing to say about every one. For all the mighty airs she puts on she is afraid that Sir William will cut off her allowance; while her younger brother-in-law (Tom Hollander) unsuccessfully grovels before Sir William to get him to invest in supplying boots to the Sudanese soldiers.
Another aristocratic leech, Freddie Nesbitt (Wilby), has married money, but has squandered his wife’s inheritance and having no use for her any longer now despises her. He is courting and at the same time blackmailing Sir William’s daughter Isobel (Camilla Rutherford), in the hopes that she will persuade Sir William to set him up for life.
It’s Constance who tells her innocent maid, Mary (Macdonald), that Sylvia and her younger sister, Louisa (Geraldine Somerville), coldly cut cards to determine which of the two, who come from a financially ruined but titled family, would snag the self-made millionaire Sir William.
Sir William loves to make money and toy with his gun collection, that is when he isn’t taking his lady servants to bed. He’s secretly having an affair with Elsie, but it is something everyone knows and that is no problem as long as it remains discrete. The ice cold Sylvia also has her discrete affairs and during this party she zeroes in on the handsome bisexual Henry Denton (Philippe), he’s posing as the valet of the discrete gay Hollywood producer Morris Weissman (Balaban). Henry’s really an actor prepping for his part as an English servant. When Lady Sylvia requests delivery of a glass of warm milk at 1 a.m., at which time she promises to be “wide awake,” Henry becomes her stud for the night. Weissman was invited to the party because of his friendship with the British matinee idol, Ivor Novello (Northam–the part he plays is of a real-life matinee idol of that era), who is related to Sir William and got Sir William’s permission for the producer and his actor friend to come along and research how the British aristocracy lives for his next feature “Charlie Chan in London.” Ivor is along to entertain the guests with his singing and piano playing, but makes more of an impression on the servants than on the bored guests. One of his songs, “The Land of Might-Have-Been,” might very well be the film’s theme.
There’s intrigue and snobbery also among the servant class, and that is seen through the wide-open eyes of Mary. She’s guided through the house by the kind-hearted and truthful but dispirited Elsie (Watson). She is awed by the imposing authoritative butler Jennings (Bates), the gruff head cook Mrs. Croft (Atkins), and the stern head housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Mirren). Mrs. Wilson at one point declares her competency by saying “I’m the perfect servant. I have no life.” Mary’s also intrigued by Parks (Owen), the mysterious reclusive valet for Lord Stockbridge (Dance), who when his unknown factory mother died was placed in an orphanage.
The murder mystery might be ordinary Charlie Chan B-film fluff, but the social satire is anything but ordinary. I felt like I was really observing how the rich and their help live, in this richly atmospheric and textured film. This stylish, classy, well-acted and photographed film, is an Anglophile’s delight. It’s a merging of the world of Hollywood fantasy with the fantasy world of the British upper-class. There’s not one wasted word or motion in this masterpiece, a film that delivers an in-depth character study from a clear-cut and involving story laced with multiple layers of entanglements and too many characters to keep track of all of them; yet, all have their moment in the sun and in the rain. And even though it is filled with the mystery genre’s formulaic devices, it does it in a joyously energetic and refreshing way.
REVIEWED ON 2/3/2002 GRADE: A +