Directed by: Robert Altman
Written by: Julian Fellowes
Company: Capitol Films / USA Films
Runtime: 137 minutes
The film is about the two social classes constantly intertwining as the party in a mansion proceeds. Each and every one of the characters in those classes have a secret of their own, and some of them even share their secrets with each other.
They talk, they make love, they fight, they eat, they meet, they greet, they drink, but these two classes, the Upstairs and the Downstairs continuously give themselves distance from each other.
All of these interwoven subplots come to a climax when the owner of the mansion was murdered, a mystery shaking the people of both classes. With this, they must continue to go on with their lives as the country party goes on.
You see, the plot is so hard to write because if you put it into detail, then it would take half of this profile. Anyway, let’s continue.
The direction is solid and definitely in control. It has this certain amount of care that is really needed especially if you do these kinds of stories where there is a lot of subplots involved. It breaks down what the screenplay has to offer for us to absorb each story that is being executed in front of our eyes. It is very delicate in every movement of the plot that it delivers but you know we are heading into something. It takes its time, it maybe long, to long for some, but it was not time wasted. When you see it until the end, you feel a sense of reward because you were able to make it through this intentionally slow film.
And though that intentionally slow remark that I wrote is not necessarily negative, it is the only thing that makes me keep away from loving this movie. I like that a film with a lot of small stories like this was able to juice out the screenplay’s best potential to make the characters three-dimensional. I can sense the realism in this film because of the time allotted for us to discover for ourselves with these people, but because of the nature of the story and the nature of the direction, the full amount of cinematic thrill that it could have achieved was slightly sacrificed. It was a chore to watch, I admit, but I’d never say it was bad. I’m sure I would revisit this film in the future, but for now, I’m not going to lie in saying that I’m not a hardcore fan of this. And this is because of the deliberate pace of this film. It’s not a bad film, it’s very far from that, but it will definitely test your patience. Trust me.
The screenplay is the star. Not the actors, of the director, or the costumes – it is the screenplay. In its length of almost two hours and thirty minutes, it was able to maximize the material that it has, and talk about originality. This is not the kind of film I would expect to be an original screenplay, by the way. I expected this to be adapted from a stage play or whatever, not just written directly for film. I do not know how would I make it sound that it was a compliment, but I believe it did something extraordinary, movie-writing-wise. You would not expect this kind of writing from a film. Its recurring use of overlapping dialogues fills the screen with intense vigor and energy but never letting go the nuance that it establishes right from the start.
This is the element of the film that drives the movie with a full speed at the start then slowly relaxes for us to be an observer of the events that slowly unravel as the film progresses. The one thing that constantly echoes at the back of my mind is the overwhelming expertise exemplified in this. Everything that happens in this movie give the plot a move forward and makes the characters have a development. The handling of the characters is tense and there is a lingering sensation of uncertainty among the characters. They all have an unpredictable persona that the screenplay shades on the characters, making them interesting and something to really watch.
And while the direction moves at an almost glacial pace that it may want some viewers to turn this movie off, it is the screenplay that sustains the interest. The actors certainly had amazing delivery, but we constantly watch out for what are the characters going to say. We are holding on in every scene because you almost doubt every character we see because, as I have said a while ago, all of the characters have secrets. The taut screenplay crafts all of these – plot, subplots, characters, events – with such ease and dimension that it easily becomes the biggest asset of this film.
The cinematography is excellent. Every scene lensed with those almost glowing feel of the camera succeed in reenacting the lost time when this movie was set. It authentically recreates the whole feeling of nostalgia without immersing us into dizzying amounts of it. It feels very classy but at the same time, there is this freshness in every shot. Take note that the camera never becomes steady in this film. It always moves, or in some cases, shakes. There is no steady shot here. Just a bit of trivia.
The editing demonstrates the labor of love the filmmakers had for this film. We have this stories somewhat distant from one another, but even then, it movies perfectly and gracefully. It knows when to go back from another character, every insert shot feels knowledgeable, the dialogue scenes capture the essence of socializing with other people, the murder is perfectly built with joy and impending danger, it underlines the character’s self-suspicion properly, it graces every scene with mastery without even showing off – the editing made the movie “the movie” that it was.
The music is as subtle as you can get. There is no big musical piece, but it suitably accommodates the need for emotional resonance in scenes when the dialogue hands over the responsibility of shaping the film to the camera. Of course, the music was no big deal in here, but it was able to furnish the dynamics of the film all throughout the length.
The acting, or let us say, the actors, breathe in the life the film has. the direction is the heart, the screenplay is the brain, but the acting is the oxygen of this film. This is one of those “real” ensemble movies where nobody stands out individually because all of the actors collectively rise up above the challenge without ever leaving one out.
All of the actors are all-around good, but I do not know all of them by name, so I’ll cite those I know, but rest assured, all of them did their part in making this film excellently acted.
Kelly Macdonald brings out the supposed innocence of her character naturally without pushing the boundaries of it towards ignorance. Her handling of the character is definitely subtle, but not to be ignored.
Ryan Philippe, on the other hand, was successful in blending the masculine reservedness and the fiery lust hidden in his facade. When he heals with a woman on downstairs and one on upstairs in terms of sex is vastly different, but not out of character.
Kristin Scott-Thomas playfully mixes innate superiority and relaxed sensuality, bringing a very dynamic three-dimensional character to life. When he first recognizes Ryan Philippe’s character in his supposed efficiency, she hints a minute amount of desire in the delivery of that word – “efficiency” – and it is expertly done.
Clive Owen wears a haunting exterior of alertness that is lingering in every scene he is in. He definitely has this powerful control above all of those in the downstairs but at the same time, he seemed to be very approachable.
Emily Watson holds complete reserve of her character. You always feel she is not saying all that she has got to say, but she makes you feel that she has a lot to say more than she is allowed to.
Helen Mirren is fantastic. He embodies all of the facets of the character she plays – the perfect servant. She is almost a ghost absorbed by the walls, by the glamor around her, but she is the one to actually watch out. She knows everything, but never feels calculated. She is always in the mood of working. Except for her last scene, she does what a servant should do – hold back her own personal emotions. But even then, she is the character to root for. She sturdily establishes the foundation of her character’s presence right from the start of the film, and what’s next leaves an indelible mark throughout.
Maggie Smith, though not as impressive as her fans make her sound to be, shakes the ground with an entertaining creation of a character whose domination in the group is almost spectacular to see. You may think that they are all equal, but her slightest move even suggest that she stands out from the rest of those who stand out already. It is her divine screen presence that makes her character a fascination to see.
All in all, the film succeed in all of the levels of the filmmaking a great movie should achieve. And I think it is a great film – something to watch again in the future for a revisit, but right now, I’m not going with the flow of the passionate lovers and say it right now – I do not love the film 100%. I know, rewatching changes a lot of things, but right now, I’m not convinced that I’m fully passionate about it.
For this, the movie gets:
What are your thoughts? Do you agree or not?