Most modern movies seem to have a hard time putting together one or two three-dimensional characters. Flying in the face of this trend is Robert Altman's Gosford Park, which treats the viewer to a myriad of at least a dozen well-developed characters who make a second viewing almost a necessity.
The scene is set in November 1932 at the mansion of Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and Lady Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas.) They're having a shooting party, and they've invited just about everyone they know for the evening. Serving these upper-crust guests are the McCordles' help, a group of oppressed cleaning ladies, butlers and cooks who hide their resentment of the privileged behind thin veils, if at all.
As the servants sit at their own small table and rubberneck to get a look at the fun the others are having, the viewer gets to bridge the gap and see both sides. While the movie doesn't have any explosions or expose any skin, it's the dialogue that packs the punch, making each character a person in their own right.
One example is a line from Sir William's sister, Constance (Maggie Smith,) who says to Hollywood star Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) when he balks at giving away the ending to his new movie, "But it's not like any of us are going to see it." Smith somehow manages to shine among a host of stars in this one, packing the ever-blunt Constance with a spark that makes her irresistible to watch.
The party hits a snag, though, when a murder takes place and, all of a sudden, there is an entire group of suspects. Putting a twist on the crime is the fact that the body was stabbed after it had just been poisoned, meaning there were two homicidally-minded people in the house that night.
Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) shows up quickly with his assistant Constable Dexter (Ron Webster) and almost immediately shows his incompetence, ignoring evidence and not interviewing any of the servants. As the investigation gets botched, the movie builds in suspense as the viewer waits to see who will be uncovered as the murderer. A surprising ending is a payoff worth the effort needed to sift through all these characters and figure out each one's motivations.
The film has garnered several Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Art Direction, Costume Design and Writing (Original Screenplay.) Helen Mirren and Magie Smith were nominated for Best Supporting Actress and Robert Altman for Best Director.
Between the intricate plot, the sensational screenplay and the downplayed acting within each role, Gosford Park is truly a film worth experiencing. It comes off just like a Broadway play, and Altman should take a bow.

Rating: A-