Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emily Watson, Helen Mirren, Ryan Phillippe, Clive Owen, Alan Bates, Eileen Atkins, Charles Dance, Stephen Fry, Derek Jacobi, Jeremy Northam, Bob Balaban, Tom Hollander, Geraldine Somerville, Sophie Thompson, Natasha Wightman, James Wilby, Camilla Rutherford
Director: Robert Altman
Summary: The lives of upstairs guests and servants at a country house party in 1932 England as they investigate a murder involving one of them
Other Nominations: Director, Supporting Actress (Smith), Supporting Actress (Mirren), Original Screenplay*, Art Direction, Costume Design
This is one of those movies where it really feels like everything comes together at the end in such a satisfying way that it raised my opinion of the whole movie. This is a film about the most British of subjects: class struggle, this one between servants and their wealthy employers, many of whom are from the aristocracy (this all also gets wrapped up in a lot of gender role issues as well) and does so exceedingly well. The decision to set it in 1932 makes total sense-it’s in between World Wars, right before the sunset of the British Empire and before the significance of the peerage system started to crumble-and we see foreshadowing of a future where the old regime dies out.
Robert Altman sure loves his casts of thousands, and this is one of the most notable instances: it’s the only movie that has seven knighted cast members (Mirren, Smith, Scott Thomas, Gambon, Jacobi, Atkins and Bates). Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren do give two of the best performances (although Mirren gets a remarkably small amount of screentime for a nominee), but I would also highlight Macdonald who plays what is sort of the audience viewpoint character and manages to make what is usually a sort of thankless role pretty memorable.
From a story standpoint, it’s unusual for a murder mystery to wait over halfway through the movie to actually have the murder and the mystery behind the murder itself honestly doesn’t feel that important, or at least not all that important compared to the themes the movies is building. From start to finish, the movie requires your full attention, both to the dialogue and so that you can keep track of a million characters. This is probably my biggest issue with the movie-I generally don’t like massive casts in movies; in a TV series you can get away with it because you have enough time, but for a movie you don’t get enough time to adequately develop them all that much beyond surface level with only two or three exceptions. While the movie is much more focused on themes than characters, I think it’s possible that with a tighter cast it could have done both well. Nevertheless, it does a great job of doing what it set out to do-the first hour might not be the greatest, but one we get to the stretch-run, things pick and and start coming together in a strong way.