This one sort of slipped under my radar because in 2001 I certainly didn’t know the name Robert Altman, and I was still not actively pursuing straight-dramas or dry, subtle comedies.
It stayed under because my mother watched it and was not impressed. Later, though, I reconsidered upon knowing the name Altman (despite the misgivings of my father when it comes to Altman’s tendency toward overlapping conversation) and found it relatively inexpensive and so decided to pick it up and give it a go.
Considering the running time was a little over two hours, it has sat around longer than many others simply because when the two hour line is significantly crossed (at least fifteen minutes over) I like to have a lot of breathing space to fit the film into the rest of my schedule. I had a good three hours this morning, so I went ahead this time and watched it. The cast faded on and off the screen during the opening (in name only, of course) and I was nodding to it, pleased with the choices, but not terribly surprised as Altman always manages to cram a whole boatload of talent into his movies. This is not a real exception insofar as Altman’s usual modus operandi; it’s a floating, inarguably dialogue-driven movie as always. Some call this boring, and perhaps it could be, but I think that comes more from expecting the wrong thing from the movie than from inherent flaw. Conversations, as always, overlap and start and stop at random, not in an unrealistic way, but rather as the camera moves or cuts to a different one and the new one fades or cuts in and takes precedence in the audience’s ears, while the other continues on.
In all, “murder mystery” really seems an inaccurate tag here–there is a murder, but it’s about an hour and a half into the film, and is almost not even the point. When an inspector arrives (Stephen Fry, still shining at bumbling comedy from a character who thinks more of himself than everyone else) it doesn’t really even matter–there is no moment of revelation or explanation from him, no intense questioning sessions, no accusations, theories, suspicions or secretly hidden wit and knowledge. He can barely even manage to get his name out to the posh upper class folk hosting the party at which the murder occurs. One might think his name is “Inspector Thom–” rather than Thompson. And that’s really the actual point of the movie. We’re seeing the contrast between the hosts and their guests (Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Jeremy Northam, Bob Balaban, and so on) and their servants (Helen Mirren, Kelly Macdonald, Clive Owen, Ryan Phillipe, etc). The hosts are completely full of themselves and have no time for anyone else, constantly leaving the inspector with his half-name, speaking ill of each other and backstabbing each other constantly. The servants are not perfect people in contrast, but they are certainly more grounded. They have their own dramas and gossip, though they point out themselves that in fact they live through those they service, rather than living for themselves much of the time.
Often we go from a dining room conversation with the upper crust to the lively gossip of the kitchen and back and forth, seeing easily the different approach of each, as the servants speak frankly to one another and the served speak out of the side of their mouths and hide their disgusts, or reveal them only quietly or subtly.
This makes for an enjoyable enough film (my eyebrow rises a bit at the claims that this is a comedy before anything else, though it is amusing) and one I’m not at all disappointed with, but I can’t say it blew me away either. What did blow me away about it though–I shouldn’t downplay the performances of all these wonderful actors, nor Altman’s direction, nor the scripting, but none stood out–was actually Patrick Doyle’s score for the film, alternating between a jazzy, brush drums and sax track for a sort of bemused tone for some bits, such as the shooting portion of the shooting party, and a violin and accordion heavy sentimental sort of theme. Both are quite pleasing and stand out in their lovely melodies and arrangement without completely distracting. Sometimes I’d almost credit them for holding my interest over anything else going on. Note should also be made of Jeremy Northam’s rather lovely singing voice, employed for a few songs during the party “live.”