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Gosford Park inspired screenwriter Julian Fellowes to create Downton Abbey — but don’t let that association fool you, because this is no quaint, sentimental period drama but a scalding satire of 1930s England class relations (even though Maggie Smith does play a withering dowager countess here, too). Robert Altman, master orchestrator of ensembles, assembled a banquet of performers here, including Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Charles Dance as the well-to-do attendees of a hunting party on a grand estate. Working furiously to meet their every whim is the house’s domestic staff, played by such talents as Emily Watson, Helen Mirren, Kelly Macdonald, and Clive Owen.

The murder comes over an hour into the film, which ought to tell you about its real focus (Altman actually called Gosford Park a “who cares whodunnit”). In place of Agatha Christie-style intrigue is brilliant characterization and storytelling. Even at 137 minutes, 30-plus characters mean time is of the essence, but Altman and his actors miraculously find a way to convey a deep sense of each person — especially those downstairs. This tangle of rich lives never gets overwhelming, though, because Gosford Park is expertly paced. It’s nothing less than a joy to sit back and experience the masterful unraveling of its many threads, each more revelatory than the last.

Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Adrian Scarborough, Alan Bates, Bob Balaban, Camilla Rutherford, Charles Dance, Claudie Blakley, Clive Owen, Derek Jacobi, Eileen Atkins, Emily Watson, Emma Buckley, Finty Williams, Frances Low, Frank Thornton, Geraldine Somerville, Gregor Henderson-Begg, Helen Mirren, James Wilby, Jeremy Northam, Jeremy Swift, Joanna Maude, John Atterbury, Kelly Macdonald, Kristin Scott Thomas, Laura Harling, Laurence Fox, Leo Bill, Lucy Cohu, Maggie Smith, Meg Wynn Owen, Michael Gambon, Natalie Danks-Smith, Natasha Wightman, Richard E. Grant, Ron Webster, Ryan Phillippe, Sarah Flind, Sophie Thompson, Stephen Fry, Teresa Churcher, Tom Hollander, Trent Ford

Director: Robert Altman

Rating: R