Altman's murder-mystery 'Park' has too many players

by Kelly Swartz | 1/21/02 6:00am

There is something about murder mysteries and rain. There is also something about pretentious old England and dreary weather, drizzling her gaudy, grim Brits in aging pearls polished to shades of brown and gray.

Director Robert Altman embraces such vintage imagery in the opening scenes and throughout his newest film, "Gosford Park," a subtly humorous menagerie of curious characters lost in a maze of endless subplots directly and indirectly linked to an unsolved murder that takes place within the chaos.

Set during the 1930s in an English country mansion, the movie opens as friends of Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and Lady Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrive for a weekend shooting party. At once, two bustling worlds emerge distinctly separate from one another. Wealthy guests attach themselves to the mildewed and corrupted elegance of the upper class while the housemaids and manservants dwell and toil in the corridors below.

Altman juxtaposes the two classes beautifully, providing comedic relief in the form of snotty Constance, Countess of Trentham (the superb Maggie Smith, remembered by many as the crotchety head nun in "Sister Act") as well as within the exaggeration and manipulation of other character personalities.

Ryan Phillippe plays his usual nympho-seducer role as an American actor undercover as a valet to study the realities of his role in an upcoming Hollywood murder-mystery production. His "master" is Mr. Weissman (Bob Balaban), a rude American friend of famous British actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), another guest at the McCordles party.

Lies and deception abound within the interwoven plot lines. At least five adulterous love affairs occur within the course of the film, as well as misused funds, bribery, blackmail, attempted rape and domestic abuse.

There are certainly enough characters to keep all the separate flames going. The problem is remembering who slept with whom, who is married to whom, who owes whom money and who wants whom dead.

The multitude of dim hallways and drab backgrounds don't make distinguishing one shadowy face from another any easier.

Altman does, however, manage to pull off an impressive amount of drama and genuine emotion within his convoluted plot line.

Sweet and innocent Isobel (Camilla Rutherford) intrigues viewers with her choppy, touselled locks and unnerving, sultry stare, but intense competition for stage presence among all the surrounding action dulls her distinctive beauty.

Mary, Constance's maid (Kelly Macdonald), shines in her quiet and reserved performance along with Robert Parks (Clive Owen), a disturbed valet orphaned as a child.

Actually, each individual performance piques interest and respect, and Altman's incorporation of different mood elements and symbols, such as the violent wrenching of game birds from flight and shattered glasses of Bloody Marys, contribute to the film's overall dark and vaguely comedic tone.

"Gosford Park" has the potential to resurrect the famous murder mystery from its most recent and lowly incarnation, the board game (and film spin-off) "Clue." Altman simply has to cut down the amount of conflicting action and reduce the running time to less than its present dragging two and a quarter hours.

Altman does a wonderful job using interesting characters to confuse the audience to the point of exhaustion.

Viewers spend so much time trying to distinguish one dysfunctional British guest from the next that they absentmindedly abandon the challenging process of guessing the true killer and solving the mystery before the eventual resolution.

But so is the formula for a dinner murder -- to keep the audience interested while throwing in as many ingredients as one can find without drawing out the secret-defining flavor.