Sally Potter is a director notorious for subverting our expectations in cinema, from Tilda Swinton’s nonconformist portrayal of Orlando, to the two inspiring leads of her 2012 feature film Ginger & Rosa. Her latest feature, The Party, fits neatly into Potter’s anthology of unique and boundary pushing cinema. Playing out its short 72 minute running length in real time, the film is completely character driven. The seven strong ensemble cast work within two rooms and a small garden area – the action taking place in only one location. It’s a demanding task, but Potter has supremely talented cast at her fingertips: Timothy Spall, Kristin Scott Thomas, Cillian Murphy, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz and Cherry Jones are all on top form throughout.
The titular ‘party’ refers not only to the actual celebratory party occurring at Janet’s (Scott Thomas) home, but also to the parliamentary party she has just been promoted to Shadow Minister of Health for. The two are fundamentally interlinked as talks of politics (including the NHS, democracy and the usefulness of Western medicine) are discussed constantly throughout the film.
With friends like these…?
From the initial frame, each character is set up to be thoroughly unlikable – a theme which Potter plays on throughout. Janet, the host, is competent, passionate about politics, and also happens to be having an affair. Her husband, Bill, is a drunk with a few secrets that the drink will help to unravel. Her friend, Martha, is having marital issues with her wife Jinny. Her other friend, April (a pessimistic with a superiority complex), is separating from her husband Gottfried, who speaks only in mantras. Oh, and Tom, the husband of Marianne (who is running late), snorts ample amounts of cocaine and brings a gun to the party.
That’s just the first five minutes. Of course, the subsequent indiscretions, secrets and lies revealed throughout the evening don’t do them any favors at all. In fact, things get a whole lot worse.
Even if taken as a collective, the characters have very little in the way of redeeming features – which is precisely where most of the humor comes from. They rub each other completely up the wrong, an existing tension which is then amplified after an outpouring of revelations – specifically from Janet’s husband Bill. Spall is brilliant as a half sloshed Bill going through an existential crisis, only rivaled by Patricia Clarkson’s April. Clarkson’s witty asides (almost to herself rather than the room) are excellently delivered, hitting a perfect halfway note between despair and utter disdain. Add to that Bruno Ganz’s zen-like one liners, mostly in rebuttal to his wife’s condescension, and it’s clear that this is a perfectly matched ensemble cast.
Potter plays around with staging and music to varying degrees of comedic effect – a very aptly timed moment with a variety of records playing out to the room is a particularly joyous moment. Timing is everything in comedy, and Potter gets every single beat of it right in The Party.
Though all of the characters are captivating, Martha and Jinny do seem a little less developed than the others – their fight being one of the less interesting aspects of the film. Perhaps it’s partly because the other scenarios have substantially more jeopardy, or perhaps it is because they seem to be the most trope-like characters in the entire film. Either way, their story-line seemed to put a small dent in the momentum of the film as a whole.
The Party also suffers ever so slightly from a very slow start. For its short run-time, the film should have us captivated from the beginning, but unfortunately it does take a bit of time to be completely engaged with the action. It feels a little unstable at first, not sure whether it’s a drama or a comedy, but after a while it picks up momentum and becomes a deliciously dark and witty film.
A Brexit Special
Fundamentally, The Party is absurdly funny. We are both laughing with the characters and at them at the same time, and that’s a rare accomplishment, especially for a director who is not renowned for writing or directing comedies. Layers of irony and hilarious takes on British society, government, and of course the National Health Service are relatable to anyone who has ever held even the smallest opinion about where the country is headed. The public/private debate, Western medicine vs ‘natural healing’… even the validity of a democratic system are all openly discussed and dissected.
As a window into the lives and troubles of the British middle class, The Party encompasses and positively revels in the idea of first world problems. Here we have a signature group of utterly detestable ‘bougie’ middle-upper class folk, airing their views about the NHS, the economy and modern medicine but being so far removed from the subjects that their discussions are completely empty. They slay each other with their own ideologies – including Janet, an MP – but none of them can muster up any real emotion until it comes to their own personal grievances.
Interestingly, The Party was shot over two weeks in the midst of the Brexit referendum. Potter has captured the divisive atmosphere in the country at that time, in addition to the self righteousness of the entire debate. Empty arguments and theories with no supporting evidence are tossed around the room like a football – each player desperate to pass on their own ‘correct’ opinion. Reflecting the state of UK politics, The Party entertains caricatures, extremities and arguments for argument’s sake.
Conclusion: The Party
I am not too fussed with its small flaws. The Party is an example of well-structured storytelling. It relies not on gimmicks or CGI, but simple, clever narrative structures, witty dialogue and a cast of impenetrable actors. It’s a true triumph.
Oh, and the vol-au-vents were irreparably burnt. But by the end, that’s the last thing on anyone’s mind.
Did you fall for the The Party‘s hilarious manifesto, or did it not live up to it’s electoral promises for you? Let us know in the comments!
The Party is currently screening in select UK cinemas, and will be released in the US on February 16th, 2018. For more international release dates, click here.
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