Set in the 1930s, the story takes place in an old-fashioned English country house where a weekend shooting party is underway. The story centers on the McCordle family, particularly the man of the house, William McCordle. Getting on in years, William has become benefactor to many of his relatives and friends. As the weekend goes on, secrets are revealed, and it seems everyone, above stairs and below, wants a piece of William and his money, but how far will they go to get it? Written by
The mystery aspect slows the pace but the film is best during the class tension and interrelationships
In 1932, a group of socialites, landowners, Americans and their servants arrive at a country house for a shooting party over the weekend. As the relationships and tensions twist and weave upstairs, so too do the dynamics and relationships between the various house staff and valets below the stairs. Stories and characters play out but whenever a murder takes place, the police move in and everyone is a suspect.
My plot summary suggests that this is a sort of murder mystery and that this will act as the driving force behind the narrative, however this is not the case and in reality the film is much more about the characters and relationships than it is about the murder. To this end the film will annoy some people who are perhaps not used to the sort of film that Altman produces and will be looking for the mystery aspect to be the all. However, I found the rather free-wheeling ensemble approach to be very enjoyable and the first hour moved quickly by thanks to the natural interactions and relationships and it was actually the mystery aspect that didn't work as well because it required too sudden a change in pace a change that the material seemed to resist and hamper. Despite this it does still work mainly because the Oscar winning writing brings out such convincing relationships and social politics, making it enjoyable and interesting throughout. The direction is great; the use of two cameras in group scenes means that the actors seem to flow around as naturally as their dialogue would suggest few seem forced to act to a fixed point and seem more realistic.
Considering the talent on board, it is not surprising that nobody really upstages anyone in particular and the ensemble feel is strong. Smith, Gambon, Thomas, Dance, Northam, Balaban and others make the upstairs fizzle with snobbery and unspoken resentments. Meanwhile the downstairs staff are just as well drawn and delivered by Mirren, Owen, Jacobi, Watson, Bates, Grant, Atkins and others. Stephen Fry is fairly minor within the plot but he is delightfully comic, even if he doesn't quite fit into the film that well.
Overall this is a classy film very much in the Altman style an ensemble piece of characters and relationships that we are left to drift within. Some viewers will find it frustrating that it takes so long to get to the point where the mystery kicks in but I actually found this to be the weaker aspect of the film and the most enjoyable parts were the well written characters and dialogue, which deservedly won Fellowes his Oscar.
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