The Party review – the dinner bash from hell

A politician’s soiree quickly descends into farce in Sally Potter’s star-laden satire, a sharply observed study of love and politics

The titular “party” of writer-director Sally Potter’s riotous tragicomedy is both a ghastly social function at which bourgeois lives unravel and the unnamed political opposition party through whose ranks Kristin Scott Thomas’s brittle antiheroine Janet ascends. She’s the newly appointed shadow health minister, a careerist idealist who believes in “truth and reconciliation” rather than shouting, punching and biting. Yet during the course of a single calamitous soiree, her right-thinking, left-leaning comrades will turn on themselves and one another in an increasingly farcical feeding frenzy. Indeed, when we first meet Janet, she’s pointing a gun at the camera, a harbinger of what’s to come in Potter’s short, sharp satire of love, politics and burnt vol-au-vents.

The scene is set in an upmarket London townhouse, where a pinny-wearing Janet prepares nibbles while fielding congratulatory phone calls about her promotion. To her friends she’s “a star” who “looks like a girl, thinks like a man… ministerial, in a 21st-century postmodern, post-post-feminist sort of way”. She also has a secret caller whose texts will add spice to the evening. In the living room, Janet’s morose academic husband (Timothy Spall) nurses a glass of red wine, the repeated blues refrain of I’m a Man blasting from his beloved stereo, accentuating his emasculation. “I’m Bill,” he declares forlornly, “or at least I used to be…” Now he’s just another “Denis”, or “Philip”, destined to trail haplessly behind his more powerful wife, a shadowy stranger in his own home.

Soon, guests start to arrive. There’s acid-tongued April (Patricia Clarkson) and her hippy-dippy life coach boyfriend Gottfried (Bruno Ganz); pregnant Jinny (Emily Mortimer) and her older partner, Martha (Cherry Jones); and Tom (Cillian Murphy), the “wanker banker” who snorts coke in the bathroom and assures everybody that his lovely wife, Marianne, will arrive soon – like Godot.

All come to praise Janet, yet each brings their own baggage of bile and bitterness. Martha is alarmed that she and Jinny are about to become “a collective rather than couple”. Gottfried is on his “last supper” with April, her patience with his new age nonsense exhausted. As for Bill, he’s been to see a Harley Street doctor (“You went private?”) and has an announcement to make, one of several bombshells that will pepper the evening.

Watch the trailer for The Party.

Potter’s first film since 2012’s Ginger & Rosa, The Party is an impressively lean affair, shot in a single location with few frills and no fuss – just an A-list cast at the top of their game. Potter looks toward Chekhov, Albee and Buñuel as inspirations, alongside such 60s Brit cinema classics as Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Bryan Forbes’s The L-Shaped Room. There’s a retro feel to Aleksei Rodionov’s handsome black-and-white cinematography, although the ease with which his camera waltzes around the cast lends a note of roving modernity, recalling the fluid poetry of Potter’s 2004 film Yes. Dance has always been central to Potter’s work (not just in The Tango Lesson), and there’s a real exuberance in the way she choreographs her players through the slapstick pirouettes and pratfalls of this vaguely absurdist romp. Meanwhile, Bill’s vinyl collection provides contrapuntal jukebox accompaniment, inappropriate records randomly selected with hilarious results.

Shot over the fortnight in which the Brexit referendum took place, The Party presents a middle-class nightmare as microcosmic farce, in a world going to hell in a handcart. Yet speaking to Guy Lodge in last Sunday’s Observer, Potter stressed that “I wanted to work with the healing power of laughter as, let’s say, a shortcut through the really tragic elements”. That laughter comes courtesy of a superfluity of withering zingers: “Was that an announcement or a cry for help?”; “You’re a first-class lesbian and a second-rate thinker”; “Tickle an aromatherapist and you find a fascist” – the quotable one-liners come thick and fast. But beneath the surface there’s something more substantial, an unexpected poignancy at play as diehard rationalist Bill wrestles with metaphysical matters, while Janet rhetorically asks: “Why didn’t I notice?”

Potter may not be thought of primarily as a comedic film-maker, but a sharp streak of humour runs throughout her features, dating back to her 1992 adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Just as Mike Leigh once joked that he simply wanted to make people laugh, Potter has always worked with a wry smile. In The Party – a shaggy dog story with a cannibalistic bite – that smile becomes a belly laugh.

Contributor

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

The GuardianTramp

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