Renowned for 1992’s Orlando and the more recent Yes (2004), Sally Potter has thus far had an understated yet critically acclaimed career. Her two aforementioned features, as well as her 1997 movie The Tango Lesson, have both won and been nominated for various awards, from BAFTAS to accolades at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Her films have always been experimental and profound. Yes was a cinematic response to the 9/11 attacks, and her 2009 feature Rage, starring Jude Law, Judi Dench and Steve Buscemi, was a visually jarring, stripped down portrayal of the power of performance. Her latest project is surprisingly conformed for the director, yet it is by no means your run-of-the-mill comedy of manners.
The Party has a modest running time of 71 minutes, and its events take place in real time. Kristin Scott Thomas plays Janet — a politician who has recently been appointed the position of Shadow Health Minister for an unnamed party. She lives with her husband — the seemingly docile academic Bill (Timothy Spall) — in an upmarket London house, and the film follows an attempted celebration of her success, with the couple’s friends.
Seeds of the incoming chaos and rancour are planted early on — Janet is seen covertly speaking to an unknown lover on the phone, and Patricia Clarkson’s April incessantly blurts out passive aggressive remarks and insults. Emily Mortimer and Cherry Jones play a gay married couple, the former recently conceived with triplets, to the concern of her wife. Bruno Ganz plays April’s hippy husband, and Cillian Murphy rocks up as a suited and booted banker gone full on Wolf of Wall Street, with cocaine and gun in tow.
As seen in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015), it is impossible to have so many prestigious acting names in such a confined space without chaos erupting. Before the first splash of prosecco has been poured, Pandora’s box has been well and truly opened. Both physical and verbal blows are exchanged, relationships are shattered, and dark secrets are unleashed bitterly by the guests.
The concept of The Party sounds very much like it belongs on stage, yet this would be a criminal injustice to the performances of its cast. The film is essentially a showcase for the superb acting abilities of its stars, every character given intimate close-ups as they speak. Yet the narrative and drama is just compelling enough to prevent the film from becoming a mere acting exhibition.
Nevertheless, it is the cast which is doubtlessly the pièce de résistance of the short but sweet film Potter has served up. Ganz, Murphy and Spall are superbly comical, and Scott Thomas is on form as per usual, yet it is Patricia Clarkson who ultimately steals the show. The acid-tongued, Iago-esque April often acts as the devil whispering in Janet’s ear, and the tension between Clarkson’s and Jones’ characters could be cut with a knife.
The film’s climax somewhat fails to match up to the spiralling and boiling tension of its preceding events, but it still draws titters from the audience. Potter appears to have gone for an After-Eight mint rather than a three tiered, candle-lit birthday cake, to round off her cinematic shindig.
If the film had surpassed the 90 minute mark, certain characters may have outstayed their welcome on screen and the melodrama could potentially have become tedious. However, Potter has succeeded in creating a concise, entertaining dramatic comedy, which despite not quite adhering to her experimental style, is a pleasant amuse-bouche ahead of the tirade of awards season winter releases.