THE PARTY

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Sally Potter

Stars: Kristin Scott Thomas, Patricia Clarkson, Timothy Spall, Cillian Murphy, Emily Mortimer, Cherry Jones, Bruno Ganz.

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Not to be confused with Blake Edwards’ hilarious slapstick Tatiesque comedy from 1968 that starred Peter Sellers as an accident prone Indian actor who ruins a swank Hollywood party, this black comedy and social satire comes from director Sally Potter. With films like Orlando and The Tango Lesson to her credit, Potter has long been a favourite on the art house and film festival circuit. But this may well be one of her most accessible films to date. The Party has been written with her regular collaborator and story editor Walter Donohue and is her first feature in five years.

Ambitious politician Janet (played with steely charm by Kristin Scott Thomas) is throwing a dinner party to celebrate her recent promotion to the position of shadow health minister and has invited a few friends along. Her depressed husband Bill (Timothy Spall), a classicist academic, sits glumly in a chair in the living room listening to his old vinyl records. Her American best friend April (Patricia Clarkson) arrives with her insufferable boyfriend Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), a former hippy, in tow. Also invited are lesbian couple Jinny (Emily Mortimer) and Martha (Cherry Jones), who are expecting triplets via IVF. Upwardly mobile banker Tom (Cillian Murphy) arrives late, carrying a gun and a liberal amount of drugs, which he snorts in the bathroom at every opportunity. He continually makes excuses for his wife Marianne, who is running late. The genial gathering though soon degenerates into acrimony after Bill makes a couple of surprising announcements. Then follow a succession of vicious putdowns, verbal insults, long festering secrets, and shocking revelations.

The theme of a drawing room dinner party gathering turning nasty as couples tear strips off each other has been a staple of theatre for decades (Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? is probably the template for this sort of thing) and The Party is very theatrical in its staging. The action is confined to a couple of rooms in Janet’s house, giving the material a quite claustrophobic feel and it seems to play out in real time. The film was shot over a period of a fortnight in a studio set. It has been crisply shot in black and white by Russian cinematographer Aleksei Rodionov (Admiral, etc), which gives it the look and feel of those bleak kitchen sink dramas of British cinema of the late 50s and 60s.

The film actually opens with the stark image of a frustrated looking Thomas opening a door and pointing a gun at whoever is there. Then we flashback to follows events that lead up to this incident.

There are flawless performances from the small ensemble cast to bring this assemblage of flawed, complicated characters to life. Thomas brings a brittle quality to her performance as Janet who desperately tries to maintain some semblance of control as the party slips away from her. Clarkson is at her cynical, bitch best here as the waspish April, and delivers some of the film’s best lines.

This is a brisk and vicious absurdist social satire that tears strips off middle class pretentions, ambitions and social mores, and it makes for uncomfortable viewing at times. It can also be seen as an insightful allegory of modern politics. But with a running time of 71 minutes it never outstays its welcome.

★★☆

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