His career, however, includes many lesser-known projects – in television and in opera, as well as film – that show his abiding interest in European culture and history.
In Gosford Park, Altman travels to England in the early 1930s and sees that country's class system with razor-sharp clarity and irony. At the outset, it seems like the ultimate upstairs/downstairs comedy of manners. The separate worlds of masters and servants are delineated in a wonderfully economic way as the guests arrive at the estate of Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon).
If this film were only about the intrigues of the ruling class, or a simple-minded lesson about the injustice of class difference, it would not be such an absorbing mosaic. Altman is interested in everything that complicates and crosses over the class divide.
These aristocrats depend on their servants for gossip; the servants, in turn, form their own brutally hierarchical culture. Then there are characters who, in various ways, slip between the two levels of the house, in acts of transgression or masquerade.
It takes very little for a person – or indeed a pet dog – to suddenly become downwardly mobile in this social structure. One of these intriguing in-between figures is based on the real-life performer Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) – and, as a popular entertainer, he both delights and disgusts the English upper crust.
When he accepted Best Director award at the Golden Globes in early 2002, Altman graciously played down his own contribution, saying: "I don't know what a best director is, other than someone who stands in the same space as the best actors, and gets to watch them work." And the film certainly presents a remarkable ensemble of fine actors, including Maggie Smith, Alan Bates, Emily Watson, Clive Owen, Helen Mirren and Kristin Scott Thomas.
But Altman's eye, and his ear – his whole way of regarding a scene and bringing out its telling details – are completely present in every moment of Gosford Park. I tend to think that Altman's best films are those where a solid script anchors his love of improvisation, which sometimes turns his movies into large and not always terribly interesting parties or happenings.
Here, the script by Julian Fellowes provides a superb canvas for the multitude of collisions, misunderstandings and excruciating little humiliations which Altman loves to portray – as in the scene where a visiting police inspector (Stephen Fry) struggles to have his own name heard.
Gosford Park is Altman's version of an Agatha Christie – or Charlie Chan – murder mystery. Yet it takes at least an hour before someone is bumped off, and the questions raised by the subsequent investigation and its consequences go far deeper than simply whodunit.
Filmgoers will inevitably draw comparisons with a few other movies – especially Jean Renoir's classic La Règle du jeu (1939), another ensemble piece about a gathering of the rich and famous which also has its not-so-jolly hunting scenes, and a spirit of farce which slowly turns tragic. I was also reminded one of the best Dogme films, The Celebration (1998), in which a large family dinner party disintegrates in spectacular fashion as hidden truths force their way into the open.
But Altman finds his own bittersweet path through this material: as always, his characters are as scared of freedom as they are frustrated by constraint, and each must come to their own uneasy arrangement with the mask, or prison, which is their social role.
A richly humorous, and finally quite dark film, Gosford Park is the work of an often great director working with perfect assurance at the age of seventy-seven.
© Adrian Martin March 2002