Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5. United Kingdom/USA/Italy, 2001. USA Films, Film Council, , Chicagofilms, Medusa Film. Idea by Robert Altman, Bob Balaban, Screenplay by Julian Fellowes. Cinematography by Andrew Dunn. Produced by Robert Altman, Bob Balaban, David Levy. Music by Patrick Doyle. Production Design by Stephen Altman. Costume Design by Jenny Beavan. Film Editing by Tim Squyres. Academy Awards 2001. American Film Institute Awards 2001. Golden Globe Awards 2001. New York Film Critics Awards 2001.
Robert Altman’s experimental style of throwing a giant ensemble cast into a situation and seeing what they make of it pays off in great measure. This delightful comedy about a giant British manor that is host to many zany guests of different temperaments and personalities stars Kristin Scott Thomas and Michael Gambon as the lord and lady of the manor who are entertaining their various relatives and friends for a week-long shooting party. Meanwhile, the servants below stairs clamour to keep up with all the required serving and dressing duties under the direction of the head housekeeper (Helen Mirren). Altman’s free-flowing camera follows both the above and under-stairs action until it all comes to a head when a prominent member of the party is murdered by an unknown assailant. Here is where the film takes its most delicious turn: instead of focusing on the mechanics of the murder or concentrating on divulging clues to the audience, the story instead indulges in the reactions by all the other cast members, most hilariously the fact that only one member of the cast, the sexy maid played by Emily Watson, actually mourns the deceased. Those looking for a good Mouse Trap-style comedy better rent Clue instead, because this one dispenses of its gumshoe duties early in the investigation process, kicks up its heels and has a great time laughing at its participants. Kelly Macdonald is perfectly delightful as a visiting servant who lovingly observes the goings-on of the house and brings the plot to its head, and Maggie Smith is a standout as the disgustingly snobbish aunt to Scott Thomas, but probably the most effective performance in the film comes from Mirren: this woman amazes you with the very way she poises herself, ready for duty. The film comfortably resides somewhere just below Nashville or Short Cuts and well above Dr. T and the Women, and unlike Dr. T, the more openly-filmed, improvised scenes blend in seamlessly with the carefully scripted ones, and one can only admire Altman for this immense amount of control that he shows with both.