A Patented Directorial Dexterity Shapes Altman’s New Whodunit

Robert Altman’s Gosford Park , from a screenplay by Julian Fellowes, based upon an idea by Mr. Altman and Bob Balaban, manages to be derivative and original at the same time through Mr. Altman’s patented polyphonic virtuosity with intermingling ensembles in an ever-fluidly-shifting mise en scène . Hence, Gosford Park may remind you at times of Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game (1939), James Ivory’s The Remains of the Day (1993), the 70’s television series Upstairs, Downstairs and an Agatha Christie manor-house mystery-which is to say that it’s always on the verge of outright parody and an attendant facetiousness, and yet remains the solidly entertaining handiwork of the director of Nashville (1975) and Short Cuts (1993), among many other Altmanesque stylistic hits and misses over the past 40 years.

The period is deliberately set in November 1932, just before Hitler took power and made it impossible to treat the British aristocracy as the smug P.G. Wodehouse simpletons they were without also implicating them in the Holocaust. Gosford Park is the magnificent country estate to which nouveau-riche Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife, Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas), have invited a slew of friends and relatives for a shooting party. These include Lady Sylvia’s Aunt Constance, Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith); the hosts’ unmarried daughter, Isobel McCordle (Camilla Rutherford); and Lady Sylvia’s sister Louisa (Geraldine Somerville) and her husband, Raymond, Lord Stockbridge (Charles Dance), who cannot forgive Sir William for having risen to the peerage through his vulgar moneymaking prowess in commerce.

Then there’s Lieutenant Commander Anthony Meredith (Tom Hollander), desperately in debt, and his wife, Lady Sylvia’s other sister, Lady Lavinia Meredith (Natasha Wightman), who stands by Anthony despite his difficulties; the Honorable Freddie Nesbitt, who has lost his job, and his wife, Mabel Nesbitt (Claudia Blakley), who Freddie mistakenly assumed was wealthy; Lord Rupert Standish (Laurence Fox), the penniless younger son of a marquess who is courting Isobel; and Jeremy Blond, a friend of Lord Rupert, whatever that means.

A touch of star power is provided by Jeremy Northam, who portrays Ivor Novello, the real-life British matinee idol, film star and musical performer and, just incidentally, Sir William’s cousin. A faint hint of anti-Semitism is provided with the arrival of Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), a friend of Ivor Novello and a producer of Charlie Chan movies.

If, by this time, you have problems keeping the guests all straight in your mind, Mr. Altman does very little to enlighten you about all the intrigues upstairs. You do get the feeling that England, like the rest of the world, was in a slump in 1932. Money and the lack of it is the main topic of conversation, but most of the “swells” seem indistinct and interchangeable.

Not so downstairs, where the bulk of the star power is concentrated in a roster of servants acted by Alan Bates, Helen Mirren, Eileen Atkins, Derek Jacobi, Emily Watson, Richard E. Grant, Kelly MacDonald, Clive Owen and a score more performers less familiar to American audiences. The way the film was shot, there is always a servant or two present in every “upstairs” scene. There were no extras in the film, so background hubbub had to be supplied by the actors themselves. The point of view is thus much more downstairs than upstairs. Mr. Altman’s irreverence toward the former class has become an issue with which Americans seem to be having more trouble than the British themselves.

The murder at Gosford Park and the bizarre solution to its mystery are not worth giving away in these circumstances. The true evil involved long predates the arrival of the first guest at Gosford Park, and Mr. Altman skillfully withholds the final tears of catharsis until all the guests are in the driveway on the way home, and the police are left clueless. Stephen Fry as the detective investigating the murder seems to be attempting a Jacques Tati imitation without much success or plausibility. This is the only serious failing I can find in the film. For the rest, Mr. Altman seems to be having a good time running his spectacular cast through its paces, and you will, too.

From beginning to end, Mr. Altman’s Gosford Park is a textbook exercise in directorial dexterity. And for once, all the “inside” jokes about Charlie Chan movies and the blighted film career of the real Ivor Novello flow smoothly into the scenario, thanks to the expert timing under pressure of a marvelous ensemble.

A Study in Marriage

Ray Lawrence’s Lantana , based on the screenplay adapted by Andrew Bovell from his play Speaking in Tongues , starts out as a moody film noir and ends as a passionate meditation on the deep mysteries of marriage. The lantana bush, on its surface, is a beautiful plant filled with exotic flowers, but underneath is a thick, thorny growth. The plant serves as a metaphor for the twists and turns in four marriages beset by the demons of desire and deceit.

Police detective Leon Zat (Anthony LaPaglia) becomes entangled in a missing-persons investigation in the midst of cheating on his wife, a betrayal that fills him with self-revulsion. Leon’s wife, Sonja (Kerry Armstrong), feels that something is amiss with her marriage, but can’t bear to think that her husband is deceiving her. Without his knowledge, she consults a psychiatrist named Valerie (Barbara Hershey), who has begun to suspect that her own husband, John (Geoffrey Rush), is having an affair with a gay patient, Patrick (Peter Phelps). When Valerie disappears after having left a desperate message on her husband’s answering machine, the net of suspicion spreads wide enough to involve two neighboring couples, Jane (Rachel Blake) and her estranged husband Pete (Glenn Robbins), and-somewhat lower on the social ladder-Paula (Daniela Farinacci) and Nik (Vince Colosimo). To complicate matters for Leon in his investigation, Jane just happens to be the woman with whom he’s been betraying his wife.

With such a complicated criss-crossing of relationships, the film tends to move slowly from blackout to blackout until the deeper feelings of the characters register. This is to say that Lantana finally delivers its emotional payoff with the resolution of four marriages with varying degrees of reconciliation and regret. Mr. LaPaglia, Ms. Armstrong, Mr. Rush and Ms. Hershey invest their roles with a profound humanity.

A Study in Marriage II

Two film adaptations of real-life marriages under agonizing stress-and two of the best films of the year-are Richard Eyre’s Iris , from a screenplay by Mr. Eyre and Charles Wood, adapted from John Bayley’s two memoirs, and Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind , sparked by Russell Crowe’s extraordinary evocation of schizophrenia, which to my mind is by far the best performance of the year. I just hope that Mr. Crowe is not going to be penalized by the various award-givers simply because of his Bruce Willis–like bad-boy publicity.

As for Iris , it manages to overcome my long-held prejudice against two sets of actors playing characters at different stages of their lives. (I am still recovering from the substitution of Valerie Hobson-nice as she is, and even brilliant in Robert Hamer’s 1949 Kind Hearts and Coronets -for the Vivien Leigh–like feline beauty of young Jean Simmons midway through David Lean’s Great Expectations of 1946.) Kate Winslet as the younger Iris Murdoch and Judi Dench as the older version manage to bring the literary lioness to vibrant life: Ms. Winslet by the fruitful union of her voluptuous body with her hard-edged, impudently intellectual countenance, Ms. Dench by her magisterial mental authority slowly crumpling into the horrible confusion of Alzheimer’s.

Incarnating the Job-like patience and forbearance toward the eternally impossible Iris Murdoch are Hugh Bonneville as the early John Bailey and Jim Broadbent the later one. In both periods, the Bailey-Murdoch marriage is sustained by the mystical bonds that, as W.H. Auden observed, make married couples so much more mysteriously interesting than unmarried ones.

Javier Bardem Return In a Love Triangle

Gerardo Vera’s Second Skin presents a married couple in which the husband becomes infatuated with a gay surgeon. The husband is played by Jordi Mollà, the wife by Ariadna Gil, and the “other woman” by Javier Bardem, the Oscar-nominated star of Before Night Falls . The problem with this particular case of adultery-aside from the obvious one arising from bisexuality-is that the husband lies to his wife, lies to his male lover and lies to himself, until he’s besieged from all directions.

One doesn’t know how one is supposed to react to this once-taboo subject when the lovemaking is tilted in intensity and duration to the gay relationship rather than the straight one. I have always suspected, without the slightest bit of authority or research, that the distinction between gay and straight is one of compulsive hypersexuality on one side and repressive romanticism on the other. Of course, there are sex-crazy people in all behavioral groupings; what’s interesting in Second Skin is that the committed homosexual played by Mr. Bardem is more comfortable with women than the married bisexual played by Mr. Molla. And with the film’s striking ending, one realizes that we have a long way to go before we fully understand all the sexual permutations involved.