Culture: Natural History Lesson; Gosford Park Sees an American Director Taking on a British Institution. Alison Jones Meets the Cast

Article excerpt

Byline: Alison Jones

If you were to cross an episode of Upstairs Downstairs with an Agatha Christie novel the results would be very much like Gosford Park.

On the surface it is just another period film with a murder mystery thrown in, but scratch below that veneer and you find an acutely observed satire about a class system that is in its death throes.

A complex web of interweaving story lines set during a shooting weekend at a country house in 1932, it is directed by the recognised master of ensemble filmmaking - Robert Altman.

This was a sparkling return to form for the 76 year old auteur after the disappointment of Dr T and the Women, a fact recognised at the Golden Globes when he received an award for best director.

In common with previous cinematic masterpieces like Short Cuts, Robert has put together an incredible cast of the cream of British theatre and film.

Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Charles Dance, Kristin Scott Thomas, Derek Jacobi, Helen Mirren, Alan Bates, Emily Watson, Jeremy Northam, Alan Bates, Sophie Thompson, Clive Owen and Stephen Fry vie for screen time along with the cuckoo in the nest, American actor Ryan Phillippe.

The result is a richly textured drama revealing the social complexities that lie behind life in a great home, where the hierarchies below stairs were just as strict as those above.

In the middle of all this is Kelly Macdonald, the new maid to the Countess of Trentham (a brilliantly waspish Maggie Smith) through whose eyes we watch events unfold.

The softly spoken Macdonald, whose breakthrough came as a schoolgirl seductress in Trainspotting, was pleasantly surprised by how big her role was compared some of her more established co-stars.

'It was quite nice reading the script and realising I was on the first and last page.

'Usually I have to scour a script to find my character.

'I didn't realise until I saw the film that I was in it so much. A lot of the time I didn't have dialogue, I was just observing the others actors doing their stuff. I almost forgot I was working so it was quite a surprise to see myself in a scene.'

In contrast Sophie Thompson has a relatively small part as the most dependable of the maids who burns with unrequited love for the head butler (played by Alan Bates). Was it pure coincidence that she was cast considering her big sister Emma had also been in a period film as a housekeeper yearning for the butler?

'I don't think anyone had thought of that, although it was quite funny because some of the costume we were wearing had come from Remains of the Day. I just don't think it was a conscious link.

'It was very easy to pretend to be in love with Alan,' she adds, like a schoolgirl with a crush. 'It wasn't a stretch at all in fact I would have liked to have done more of that. Getting to work with him was an absolute corker.'

The highlight of her day, she reveals, was often the ride to the set when she or Kelly would take it in turns to travel with Bates.

'I used to look out of the window and wonder 'who is it today? Please let it be Alan',' she says giddily while Kelly smiles understandingly. …