Film Review | Sally Potter Brings Black Comedy and a Delicious Cast to The Party
Sally Potter’s black comedy The Party begins with a front door being opened by a distressed looking Kristin Scott Thomas. In slow motion she raises a gun to the caller, who is unseen by the audience, at which point the film flashes back to earlier that day. We see Scott Thomas’s character, Janet, gliding around the kitchen happily preparing a meal, meanwhile her husband Bill (Timothy Spall) sits in their book-lined living room, looking glum and listening to Muddy Waters at top volume. Janet is throwing a dinner party to celebrate her appointment as Health Minister and has invited some of their friends to attend.
What follows more or less resembles a one-act play, as various guests arrive and various secrets are revealed. There’s Tom, a sharp-suited coked-up banker, played with nervy intensity by Cillian Murphy and April, an acid-tongued cynic, played by Patricia Clarkson who makes the most of every barbed comment. She arrives with her wooly-headed partner Gottfried (Bruno Ganz) who spouts banal, new-age observations at every opportunity. However, having corralled all these characters into a single location, the plot doesn’t give much for these characters to do. There’s some predictable conflicts and revelations (pregnancy, infidelity, illness etc.) but despite the best efforts of the cast, the entire enterprise feels like it’s stuck in gear. Scott Thomas and Clarkson excel in particular and the film noticeably flags whenever they are offscreen.
All of this would be forgiven if The Party was funny and while there are some entertaining moments it never feels like it rises above the level of farce. The cast do their best with some leaden jokes but on the whole the humour is far too self-satisfied: For example, calling Gottfried a Nazi, simply because he’s German, isn’t particularly transgressive or funny in 2017 (although I will admit there is some meta-textual enjoyment to be had, since Ganz had previously portrayed Adolf Hitler in Downfall). In the end, it feels like an artful Armando Iannucci knock-off, but with none of the zip or zingers of In the Loop or Veep. Iannucci knows that it’s not enough to show politicians behaving badly, since we suspect on some level that they’re hypocrites anyway.
Throughout The Party there are some weak gestures towards some more interesting debates: Bill and Tom square off on the disjunctions between the pursuit of knowledge and the pursuit of cash, Janet and April disagree on the effectiveness of party politics, while Martha (Cherry Jones) and Jinny (Emily Mortimer) question their future together in the face of Jinny’s pregnancy with triplets. But the film seems to constantly balk in the face of pursuing these dichotomies, as if merely mentioning them was sufficient. This is disappointing as there does seem at times to be a more interesting narrative emerging about the loss of political idealism but this is quickly subsumed by some further frantic mugging by the cast.
In a recent interview Potter said that The Party was written “just before the last general election in the UK, at a point where it seemed that the left in the UK was very much losing its ability to be sincerely brave about its policies and was trying to disguise itself as something very centrist, so that left and right were almost indistinguishable”. The film does have a certain of-the-moment vitality and with a running time of just 71 minutes, moves quite quickly. It’s just a shame that it also had to be so slight.
The Party is in cinemas from Friday 13th October. Check out the trailer below.