Gosford Park

Robert Altman’s penchant for huge casts, slowly panning cameras and subtle satire are brought to bear in his delicious new film, the whodunit social commentary “Gosford Park.”

It is 1932, and Sir William (Michael Gambon) and his wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) are hosting a hunting party. All the fancy-pants Brits are coming, accompanied by their personal maids and valets, which leads to two distinct settings: upstairs at the house, where the guests are; and downstairs, where the servants live. The bluebloods rarely find themselves subterranean, but nearly every room upstairs has a servant in it at all times, which means every conversation is overheard by someone. (This movie is heavy on overhearing.)

As one character puts it, the situation makes for “tough luck on anyone who’s got secrets to hide.” Well, guess what. That would include everyone.

An hour and 15 minutes into the movie, a murder occurs, and the victim is someone everyone had a motive to kill. The mildly competent Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) is called in to investigate, and the movie is in full Agatha Christie swing. (The detective even smokes a pipe, like you’d expect him to.)

Agatha Christie didn’t delve much into social classes, though, and social classes are what “Gosford Park” is all about. The film takes both lighthearted and dismal approaches, evoking laughter many times and pity at other times.

The perfect servant has no life of his own, knows his master’s whims before the master himself knows them, and has no thought but to serve. Knowledge of this is what ultimately aids the murderer in accomplishing his or her task; the servant-master relationship also keeps the murderer’s identity a secret. This impeccably proper society make murder an easy thing to do, basically.

The performances are utterly delightful, from Stephen Fry’s inspector to Maggie Smith as a hilariously catty relative. (I’d want Maggie Smith to be my grandmother, except I’d be afraid to ever do anything incorrect in her presence.) Helen Mirren is believably rigid as servant Mrs. Wilson, Emily Watson sweet as Elsie the head housemaid, Bob Balaban funny as a Hollywood producer.

Also of note are Ryan Phillippe as a suspicious Scotsman, Jeremy Northam as an ingratiating movie star and Kristin Scott Thomas as the lady of the house.

Altman, working from an idea he and Balaban came up with, and a script written by Julian Fellowes, has an impossible number of characters to keep track of. There are around 30 speaking parts, and it is sometimes difficult to remember who’s who, especially when so much of the gossipy conversation revolves around people who are not present. The movie is not confusing, per se, but we’d get a lot more out of it if we had a score card or something.

B+ (; R, a smattering of harsh profanity, some brief sexuality, mild violence.)