Directed by Robert Altman starring Bob Balaban, Charles Dance, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Kelly McDonald, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen, Ryan Phillippe, Maggie Smith, Kristen Scott Thomas, Emily Watson.

In the winter of 1932 a group of guests gather for a shooting weekend at Gosford Park, home to Sir William and Lady Sylvia McCordle (Gambon and Scott Thomas). Among them are Lady Sylvia's aunt, The Countess of Trentham (Smith), her brother-in-law Lord Stockbridge (Dance), Hollywood producer Morris Weissman (Balaban) and the film star and composer Ivor Novello (Northam).

Catering to their every whim are their own servants (McDonald, Owen, Phillippe) and the staff of Gosford, led by Head Butler Jennings (Bates), housekeeper Mrs Wilson (Mirren) and chief housemaid Elsie (Watson). But while game is the focus of the weekend, every arrival at Gosford Park has something else on their mind: money, sex, secrets, blackmail and in one case, murder.

Over the past ten years, reviews of Altman's work have ranged from rapturous ('The Player') to lukewarm ('Dr T and the Women') to scathing ('The Gingerbread Man'), but 'Gosford Park' finds him firmly in the first category, creating a superb period drama and ultimately beating the British film industry at its own game. Granted, the opening half-hour is confusing as you struggle – like the Gosford employees – to attend to all the guests, but once they're billeted, Altman takes you from one delicious sub-plot to another, serving up mirth and misery in equal measure and exploring the gulf between the lives of those above and below stairs. He shows that the employers are really nothing but small children who, despite their outward trappings of wealth, struggle to pay their workers. The staff, meanwhile, are the ones with the real nous and insight, their resourcefulness and resilience extending far beyond those who can only look down to the end of their nose.

Everyone under the chandeliers has something to hide and, despite the massive cast, Altman handles every story and life beautifully, each actor getting their moments to shine. From Owen's glacially cool valet Parks mirrored by Mirren's character), to Scott Thomas' bored trophy wife Lady Sylvia and McDonald's great turn as the naïve Mary, each performance taps into the spectre of social class and raises issues about the haves, have nots and their dependence on each other. "Why do we spend our lives living through them?" ponders a servant at one stage – echoing what you've wondered to yourself throughout the whole film.

It would be very easy to get too comfortable in 'Gosford Park' but Altman introduces a twist in the latter stages which impacts on every character and in two cases in particular, offers some closure to a painful chapter in their shared history. It's possible that you'll see the denouement coming from some distance (and even argue that it's all a little too convenient), but the fact that the director never really solves the mystery which preceded it, gives the film an aching, unfulfilled quality that directly echoed the terse looks and things left unsaid.

Oscar nominations – at the very least.

Harry Guerin