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The Online Film Critics Society awarded Gosford Park the Best Ensemble of 2001, and with good reason. A score of characters, half with significant parts, spend a weekend together at a British manor. And although it’s sold as a murder mystery, Gosford Park is less a whodunit than a who’s-doing-what-to-whom.

Nobles and Notables

The servants take care of the noblesLord and Lady McCordle (Michael Gambon and Kristin Scott-Thomas) host a shooting party at their estate. Invited are a dozen nobles and notables, plus all their valets and handmaidens.

To introduce every character here would be as boring as a “begat” list from the Old Testament. Suffice it to say that the nobles (“upstairs” in the credits) are all there because they have relations or business with Sir William, most of them counting on his money or his influence.

For example, Constance (Maggie Smith) relies on Sir William for her allowance. His sister-in-law (or rather, her husband) needs a business favor. His daughter’s boyfriend is trying to get a job. Two strapping young latecomers (whose roles I can’t quite recall) talk about what a drag it is to have a title without having any money.

Upstairs, Downstairs

These class boundaries make for interesting interactions (even discounting all the trysts between the classes). The nobles can’t function without their servants, yet they treat them with complete disregard. When George (Richard E. Grant), a footman, stumbles in on an incriminating conversation Freddie Nesbitt (James Wilby) says “don’t worry, it’s nobody.”

You might think this disregard is an insult, but it allows the servants a great deal of freedom. The nobles are trapped in their roles 24-7, while the servants occasionally get to be who they will.

But the servants rely on their masters as well, not just for a living, but for their social fodder. The servants’s gossip is often the most insightful dialogue spoken about what’s really going on up above. And head housemaid Elsie (Emily Watson) remarks how sad it is that the servants all live vicariously through their masters, rather than living for themselves.

Order in Chaos

The direction and editing are outstanding. All the two- and three-person relationships contribute to dozens of permutations. It is confusing, and yet the complexity stands up to close scrutiny. Even now I can’t believe there isn’t some flaw in the logic or the dialogue, but after two viewings I’m convinced that the cast and crew are experts at their craft.

The editing (by Ang Lee’s favorite editor Tim Squyres) is fast enough that you have to pay attention. Ten seconds here cuts to 12 seconds there, always moving from character to character. And yet not a word or a look seems extraneous. It all holds together brilliantly, and the film stays rich through several viewings. Just don’t get lost or you’ll never catch up.

Ostensibly Murder

Only ostensibly (and in the ad campaign) is the movie about a murder mystery. In fact, Gosford Park zings the murder mystery genre. One of the guests is Morris Weissman (co-producer Bob Balaban), a B-movie producer of Charlie Chan mysteries. Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) is one part Hercule Poirot, two parts Jacques Clouseau. And instead of a murder, there are two (or is it one and a half?).

But even without the tongue-in-cheek genre busting, Gosford Park stands out. Clear direction, tight editing, and a great ensemble cast make it a movie worth seeing again. And again. And maybe again.