Here we get a long and far from affectionate look at a group of some of the most useless, boring, entitled, crass and unfeeling people who ever lived. I’m speaking, of course, of the British aristocrats and upper classes. Luckily, the movie is actually about some much more interesting people: the army of menials who serve them downstairs.
Robert Altman liked to experiment, and this one is quite unusual for him. He said he wanted to make a murder mystery … but he had no interest in a straight whodunit. A murder occurs, and a solution is found, but that’s hardly what the picture is about. There is a huge ensemble cast, which I won’t list here, and they are divided between the classical strata of Upstairs and Downstairs. Above are mostly oblivious twits who don’t really see their servants as human at all. The help is dehumanized to the extent that they even lose their names. Tradition dictates that Lord Trentham’s valet, for instance, be called Mr. Trentham among the servants. That is so awesomely horrible that I’m still shaking my head in disbelief, but that is really how it was in the great country rockpiles of 1932.
In some of the extra material Altman and others point out that there is a servant in every scene. I hadn’t actually noticed that, but thinking back … of course! The servants were always there, seeing and hearing everything. And if they had suddenly been snatched away to a better life, these aristos would be helpless as babies. They would not even know how to tie their shoes, much less rustle up a meal. God, I hate upper-class snobs. Their shit do stink.
The murder is almost comical, especially when a bumbling, fawning, oblivious Stephen Fry as a man who sees himself as a great police detective comes onto the scene, stomping all over every possible clue with his size 16 oxfords. The solution is as bizarre as any Agatha Christie novel, which is perfect.
Each and every actor is wonderful, but I’ll single out Maggie Smith (as always), Kelly Macdonald as Maggie’s maid, Helen Mirren (as always) as the no-nonsense “perfect servant” head housekeeper, Alan Bates as the head butler, and Jeremy Northam as Ivor Novello, a real movie actor and songwriter from that era, star of Alfred Hitchcock’s wonderful 1927 silent The Lodger. The upstairs people don’t seem to know what to do with him, while the downstairs folks are enchanted by his singing and playing, gathering in little nooks just out of sight of the clueless idiots in evening clothes. This is simply one of Altman’s best.