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Whodunit with a difference

In a film of compelling manipulations, what we see and hear have the quality of the random medley of real life perceptions, says GOWRI RAMNARAYAN of ``Gosford Park," nominated for Oscar.

Vignettes from ``Gosford Park''...

BRITISH VIEWERS have been more impressed with Oscar-nominated ``Gosford Park'' than the Americans. No wonder it was the opening film at the London Film Festival last year.

Robert Altman's first movie set in an English manor, has an ensemble cast glittering with top British talent -- Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi, Charles Dance, James Wilby.

Besides, the style melds European sophistication and British understatement, with the zany originality that Altman spells despite downslides (Remember ``Dr T and the Women?''). Whatever prize the movie wins will not be for spontaneity.

The craft is planned to perfection, the choreography is flawless.

The setting (a party for bird shooting in the English countryside) offers every possibility for the unexpected. Paradoxically, with over 30 radio microphones to record overlapping speech, and two cameras focussed on group action, the shooting strategy suggests the more formal stage than the intimacy of cinema.

The director and cameramen have allowed for a lot of improvisation in the actors, as also in the visual and sound assemblage. The trust in the editor has paid off richly. Yet, the impact is realistic.

In a film of compelling manipulations, what we see and hear have the quality of the random medley of real life perceptions.

The story is familiar, a tribute to Renoir's masterwork, ``The Rules of the Game'' which plays with a class-tiered weekend in a country mansion.

``Gosford Park'' is also influenced by the TV serial, ``Upstairs Downstairs'', and Agatha Christie's murder mysteries.

However, the accent is not on the red herrings, or even the crime, though the camera parodies the whodunit mode in masking the killer's identity, offering a solitary auditory clue. As Altman said, the film is more of why-dinee-do-it-before or whocares-whodunit.''

The slyness is directed towards revealing the private, secretive lives of the characters who populate the select, secluded 1930s gathering of house guests, arriving with their personal valets and maids. The latter join the flock of servants under the stairs in a constant, complicated ballet of cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing and sundry errands to keep things running smoothly above stairs.

As the narrative winds through multiple story lines, you discover that the cagey servants leading dual lives (as invisible to the masters as the cogs in the wheel) are more interesting than the employers.

The film distracts you with overt caricatures -- the Hollywood producer (Bob Balaban) perpetually calling home with his ``insights'' for his ``Charlie Chan mystery,'' his timorous vegetarianism a source of annoyance to hunter and cook.

The matinee idol (Jeremy Northam) plays the piano with an obliging charm that works only on star-struck servants, and the gawky woman, a misfit among the guests.

The bumbling Inspector is a tedious prototype. Host Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) seem stereotypical, as does the phlegmatic housekeeper (Helen Mirren), until we stumble upon explosives behind the facade.

Maggie Smith as the pernickety Countess Trentham is dynamic in tandem with her charming maid Kelly MacDonald, infusing pungency into the stock situation.

But the film is all about what is behind, below and hidden. Nothing is underlined. If you are not alert, you miss the gleams, halftones, whispers -- meant to be glimpsed and eavesdropped between the bolder outlines.

The camera debunks upper class snobbery, it also pokes fun at the servants in the nether regions imitating the same hierarchy.

Repressions tauten the film. The icy mould breaks occasionally -- as when the murderer is recognised by MacDonald, and Mirren cracks in painful recollections of sexual exploitation, when housemaid Elsie quits after an outburst before the gentry, hitching a ride with the American producer. She is just as good as--or better than--the women she serves. She has more poise, and more heart.

Altman shows understanding of weakness and frailty, meanness and oddity. What surprises you is the moral note, stronger than what you are accustomed to in the traditional English whodunit.

The characterisation is varied, nuanced and contemporary. The script (Julian Fellowes) allows the actors to imbue each role, big and small, with individuality.

The music adds a faded touch to the period drama, as much as the lighting. There is finesse and refinement. The filmmaker enjoys playing with his medium. Altman challenges the viewer, does not underestimate audience intelligence. But ``Gosford Park'' is no soul-wrenching symphony; it is at best a pleasing waltz.

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