Only a foolhardy iconoclast like Robert Altman would have the gall to tinker with a vaunted masterpiece like Jean Renoir's The Rules Of The Game, a supremely elegant and withering comedy of manners that's a perennial runner-up to Citizen Kane on greatest-of-all-time surveys. Add to the stunt a presumed mismatch of sensibilities—Renoir is admired for his humanism, Altman narrowly and unfairly criticized for his misanthropy—and Gosford Park would seem to be a calamity fit only for rubberneckers. But if Altman felt any trepidation about reconfiguring Renoir's episodic study of the French bourgeoisie for pre-WWII Britain, he doesn't let it seep into the finished product, his most confident and accomplished work in nearly a decade. Always a master at orchestrating large ensembles into communities bound by dense personal connections and social codes, Altman is a natural for class comedy, where his multiple microphones can catch all the sinister, discreetly whispered parlor talk. With apologies to Agatha Christie, he introduces Gosford Park with prophetic shots of knives and bottles of poison, but most of the venom is already on the tongues of the two dozen residents and visitors convening for a weekend pheasant hunt. As seen through the quietly observant eyes of Kelly Macdonald, the new maid hired to tend to fussy matron Maggie Smith, the estate personifies the country's rigid class system, with the pampered aristocrats "above stairs" and the common help below. When Macdonald arrives, she finds that her fellow servants are having a hard time staying deferential to their masters, a lazy and contemptuous lot whose boredom has curdled into vicious double-speak and petty backstabbing. Hosted by a widely hated industrialist (Michael Gambon) and his idle, amorous wife (Kristin Scott Thomas), the shooting party extends to immediate family and relatives, most notably a dashing movie star (Jeremy Northam) and his producer (Bob Balaban), who's considering a London setting for his next Charlie Chan serial. Tensions seethe on the lower floor, as Macdonald gets involved in the complicated lives of the head maid (Emily Watson) and numerous housekeepers and footmen, played by an impressive cast that includes Helen Mirren, Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi, Richard E. Grant, and Clive Owen. Proving that Altman can wring miracles out of even the direst performers, Ryan Phillippe steals scenes as the producer's raffish valet, who arouses suspicion with his arrogant attitude and questionable Scottish accent. Proving as sharp and nimble as ever in his mid-70s, Altman keeps the crowded estate buzzing with activity, yet he never gets lost in the clamor, casually zooming in on small but telling details about the many characters. Lively and unsparing throughout, but especially during its variation on Renoir's famous rabbit-hunting sequence, Gosford Park deepens unexpectedly when a murder jostles up old secrets and the two floors intermingle more than they let on. Much as Altman enjoys cutting the class system to ribbons, his jagged humanism, plain as day yet often curiously overlooked, proves worthy of Renoir.
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