Sally Potter's The Party chronicles a ‘dinner-party-gone-bad' and during its punchy 70-minute run-time capably skewers Britain's systems of class, politics and economics. However, with its stagey set-up and contrived dialogue, it never delivers the whip-smart social commentary that it seems to aim for, and feels more like a star-studded West End vanity project than an effective British black comedy.
Janet, played wonderfully by Kristin Scott Thomas, has recently been made Shadow Minister for Health and has planned a congratulatory drinks party for a small group of friends. Her husband Bill (Timothy Spall) labours over his record player in an attempt to avoid talking to April (Patricia Clarkson) and Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), an acerbic American and her ‘healer' boyfriend. Martha (Cherry Jones) is a Women's studies professor, her partner Jinny (Emily Mortimer) is a chef and Tom (Cillian Murphy) is a banker – crystal-clear code in a British film for ‘the bad guy'.
Anyone who has seen Chekhov, Pinter or even Poirot can see that these characters each harbour dark secrets, that will be gradually unravelled over the course of an increasingly chaotic evening.
Shot in moody monochrome, there is a definite sense of uneasiness and mystery slithering through Janet's London townhouse. It winds itself between Janet's feet as she exchanges flirty texts with an unknown admirer, it is curled in the bath as Cillian Murphy's Tom snorts cocaine and steels himself for something terrible. It positively drapes itself over Bill's shoulders as he slumps on his chair in the centre of the room, borderline catatonic. This mystery, and the manner in which it is revealed, piece-by-piece is what allows the film to avoid becoming immersed in self-important political waffling, and even delivers a final twist that may not leave the audience's jaws on the floor, but very neatly resolves a plot that has become decidedly tangled by the end.
What ultimately hampers The Party is that the film's central tenets – politics, black comedy and farce – all fail to hit the mark. The Party is undeniably a politically-charged film and each character define themselves at some point as a realist/idealist/materialist. Although it seems that Potter is interested in examining how political viewpoints are formed, and how they will be affected by adversity, this does not come across in the finished product. Instead, characters sum up their philosophies in a handful of glib sentences – “everyone's in disguise”, “sometimes you have to pretend in order to win” – that have all the impact of a burnt vol-au-vent to the forehead.
The comedy is frustratingly inconsistent; it is obvious which lines are intended to raise laughs but the writing is only occasionally funny enough to warrant them. Things do get more complicated than ruined canapés and broken wine glasses and one of the funniest scenes involves Tom and Gottfried – one desperate, the other very calm – trying to revive a stricken Bill by playing records. However, the majority of the one-liners are over-written and theatrical to such an extent that the comedy has simply been wrung out of them.
One can clearly see the film that The Party wants to be and perhaps should be. It is frustrating then, that THAT film is buried under smug, affected writing and cod philosophy.
The Party is available now on DVD, Blue Ray and Digital Platforms.
Words by Fraser Kay @fraserkay
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