Altman's social order; the grief of In the Bedroom.

Rebounding triumphantly from his recent stretch of solid but minor work (Dr. T. and the Women, Cookie's Fortune, The Gingerbread Man), 76-year-old Robert Altman has produced in Gosford Park what is clearly his best film since The Player and Short Cuts a decade ago and likely his best since Nashville in 1975. Familiar yet magnificently orchestrated, Gosford Park is also the first British production by one of the most quintessentially American directors.

Altman's main interest has always been to investigate the peculiarities of subculture -- the country-music industry in Nashville, behind-the- scenes Hollywood in The Player, an Army medical camp in M*A*S*H, modern-day Los Angeles in Short Cuts, upper-class society in post-boom Dallas in Dr. T. and the Women. This focus, along with his unrivaled touch for managing large, ensemble casts, makes Gosford Park a perfect project for him. The film, set in 1932, examines the symbiotic worlds of the aristocracy and their servants during a weekend hunting party at an English countryside estate. Both the film's upstairs and downstairs worlds are populated by one of the most fabulous casts of British thespians ever assembled, with many A-list actors taking roles that would be considered extras in most films.

Gosford Park's credit sequence establishes the film's vision of the master-servant class system. Constance, the Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith), ventures from her house to a waiting car in the rain, a brief, mundane event that requires the feverish work of three servants -- butler, driver, and attendant. Constance is traveling to the home of her niece, Lady Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas), and her wealthy husband Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon). Other guests of the McCordles include Sylvia's sisters and their husbands, Sir William's cousin, matinee idol Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), and his companion, gauchely American film producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), who is researching his next project, Charlie Chan in London. Each guest brings his or her own valet or maid, adding to the already-teeming servants' quarters at Gosford Park, which is run by butler Jennings (Alan Bates), head housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren), and head cook Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins).

Altman's handling of this cast and his visual depiction of these two worlds, as they exist separately and as they interact, is bravura. Altman's trademark style -- the use of large ensemble casts, overlapping dialogue, and free-flowing narratives (or non-narratives) -- allows viewers a lot of freedom and a lot of options of what to see and what to hear. In Gosford Park, the triumph is in how clearly this style shows the master and servant classes inhabiting the same screen spaces yet operating in largely separate worlds. It also cross-cuts beautifully between the two spaces, juxtaposing the ornate drawing rooms upstairs with the spartan servants' quarters downstairs, and picks up on how the same social hierarchies and customs that govern upstairs life are mimicked downstairs: Visiting servants are referred to by the name of their employer and the servants' dinner seating arrangements mirror that of the upstairs guests. Servants even pick up their masters' snobberies, one servant remarking about a guest, "A woman who travels without a maid has given in."

But Altman privileges the servants: We learn about the lives of the wealthy guests almost exclusively through the gossip heard downstairs, and servants hover about in every scene, paying witness to the foibles of their employers. Altman's depiction of this world is so thorough that when the head housemaid (Emily Watson as Elsie) rashly breaks the invisible plane separating the two cultures by speaking up while serving dinner, the audience will likely be as shocked as the upper crust on film.

With almost as many delicious performances as great actors and Altman in rare directorial form, Gosford Park is a wonderful entertainment. It doesn't reach anywhere near the emotional depths of its obvious model, Jean Renoir's similarly plotted house-party masterpiece The Rules of the Game, but how could it? Gosford Park is more light entertainment than heavy-handed treatise on class issues, exposing the utter ridiculousness of wealthy adults being dependent on a mass of servants with a very light touch.

In the end the film morphs from The Rules of the Game into Agatha Christie, but this isn't really a whodunit. Rather, the resolution of Gosford Park's mystery merely adds a touch of pathos to the film's pitch-perfect examination of these two worlds.

Though it was a big hit at Sundance prior to September 11th, In the Bedroom must seem much more poignant now than it did then, seeing as how it deals, seriously and movingly, with such themes as grief and retribution.

The film, which appears to have captured this year's standard critical slot as the Realistic Indie Underdog for the year-end award circuit, much like You Can Count On Me did last year, is directed by Todd Field, a character actor probably best known, if at all, for his sharp turn in Victor Nunez's wonderful Ruby in Paradise. And In the Bedroom has a lot of traits similar to Ruby: a strong feel for its rural/suburban locale, an unhurried pace, a deep regard for actors, and an almost documentary-like realism.

Set in a small community in coastal Maine, In the Bedroom respectfully outlines the contours of its community: lobster boats, fish- packing factories, backyard barbecues, and little-league baseball. It also deftly sketches the friends and co-workers who make up the orbit around its central characters.

At the center of the film is a middle-aged, well-educated couple, Matt (Tom Wilkinson) and Ruth (Sissy Spacek) Fowler, a doctor and high school teacher, respectively, and their bright son Frank (Nick Stahl), home for the summer between college and grad school. Frank is having a fling with a (slightly) older woman, the winsome Natalie (Marisa Tomei, rebuking everyone who sees her as an Oscar punchline for her My Cousin Vinny win), who has two kids and is separated from short-fused husband Richard (William Mapother).

The relationship between Frank and Natalie forms the core tension in the film. Ruth disapproves, seeing her son's affair as a reckless dalliance that could compromise his future; Matt is easier on Frank, perhaps because he gets a vicarious thrill from having Natalie sashay around the family home. But Ruth's premonitions of disaster come true, leaving the couple to cope, without giving away too much, with the unbearable loss of a child.

Talky and realistic and actor-driven, In the Bedroom can't help but be compared with You Can Count On Me, but Field's directoral hand is much surer than Kenneth Lonergan's was in that film. Indeed, the film's most unbearable and moving portrait of grief doesn't come from the inevitable confrontation between Matt and Ruth, though Spacek and Wilkinson produce plenty of Oscar-worthy fireworks, but during Field's series of quiet, carefully framed, staccato set pieces soon after Frank's death: Ruth and Matt staring into the dull glow of a television screen as a late-night comedian makes irrelevant jokes; Matt mowing the yard.

With the court system unable to mollify his and Ruth's grief, Matt decides to seek vengeance for Frank's death, and the triumph of Field's film is the way he drains the action of any satisfaction. There is a succession of subtle moments during the film's final act that questions many of the assumptions leading to Matt's action and make the film's final image of emotional numbness all the more moving.


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