2018, R, 71 min. Directed by Sally Potter. Starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Timothy Spall, Patricia Clarkson, Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer, Bruno Ganz, Cillian Murphy.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., March 2, 2018
When an apoplectic woman answers her front door holding a gun in a quivering hand while pointing the weapon at the unseen visitor arriving on her stoop – all before the film’s opening credits – you know it doesn’t augur well for the dinner party that is to follow. The film viewer is placed in the same line of vision as the unsuspecting guest, and the woman bearing the pistol is quickly revealed to be the evening’s hostess. “Fasten your seat belts,” you can almost hear Margo Channing whisper: “It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
Indeed. Writer/director Sally Potter’s drawing-room comedy is a tragic farce in which the secrets of the hostess and her six would-be dinner companions come tumbling forth as inelegantly as the clatter of plummeting silverware. The narrative form is familiar: All the action takes place in a few rooms of the hostess’ home and back patio, while a series of revelations rock the longtime companionability of the assembled group. Wisely counteracting the dowdiness of the film’s organizing structure, Potter chooses to shoot the film in sumptuous black-and-white and curb the running time to a trim 71 minutes. Moreover, the peerless crew of actors playing the party guests present stinging dialogue and reactions with the precision of expert marksmen.
Janet (Scott Thomas) is hosting the dinner to celebrate her new position as a minister in Great Britain’s shadow opposition party. Janet bustles in the kitchen preparing the food, all the while proving her prowess in the domestic as well as public spheres. In between taking congratulatory phone calls, she furtively speaks with another caller we presume to be her lover. In the drawing room, her husband Bill (Spall), spins old records while conveying an anguished countenance. First to arrive is April (Clarkson, practically stealing the whole show with her barbed asides) and her boyfriend Gottfried (Ganz), an improbable practitioner of Eastern philosophies and medicine. Next up are Martha (Jones), a middle-aged professor of women’s studies, and her younger lesbian partner Jinny (Mortimer), who comes bearing news that she is pregnant with not one, but three, babies. Bringing up the rear is Tom (Murphy), a twitchy, coke-snorting finance professional cloaking a revolver beneath his Prada suit. Fred Frith strums guitar on the soundtrack in between the vinyl records played on Bill’s immaculate sound system.
It’s delightful to find Sally Potter working in such a comic mode after a career noted for its dialectical probings (“Thriller,” Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Ginger & Rosa, among others). Despite its closed setting, The Party has an airiness not evident in the rest of her work, and the characters speak with a loose informality rarely heard in her screenplays. Potter’s is an important cinema voice that goes unheard too often due to its formality. Of course, there is also a metaphorical level to The Party that speaks to the state of British politics – and all political parties – with their abundant infighting, hidden agendas, and self-interested backstabbing. You’ll want to stay on your toes, but this Party invite is not one you’ll want to decline.