The great thing about Robert Altman is you never know what he'll do next. He may have the occasional off day (most recently with "Dr T and the Women"), but even his failures are more creditable than the vast majority of mainstream product. So it's a delight to find him back to his best with this star-studded period melodrama set in the decadent opulence of a 30s English country house.
Any fears that the veteran director of "M*A*S*H" and "The Player" would be out of his depth in territory more suited to Merchant Ivory are swiftly dispelled by the grace with which he insinuates his distinctive style of film-making into this new milieu. A splendid collection of British acting talent rise to the challenge superbly, while Julian Fellowes' witty script ensures every player has his or her moment to shine.
Unfolding both above and below the stairs during a weekend shooting party arranged by Sir William McCordle (Gambon) and his bored trophy wife (Scott Thomas), the multi-layered plot deftly weaves together a myriad of storylines. These range from the farcical (a Hollywood hunk masquerading as a footman) to the adulterous (Sir William's affair with Emily Watson's frisky maid) to the plain deadly (a midnight murder for which every character has a motive).
In a fabulous cast, Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren excel as a cash-strapped grande dame and an embittered housekeeper respectively, while Jeremy Northam is suavity personified as visiting celebrity Ivor Novello. Five stars don't do it justice.