English writer/director Sally Potter has built her reputation on challenging dramas, like the gender-bending Orlando, the revolution-focused Ginger & Rosa, and Yes, a steamy romance with poetic dialogue set to iambic pentameter. Maybe that’s why The Party is so jarring. Though sharply cast and leanly executed, this dark comedy about a band of elitist London liberals feels strangely safe, and ultimately underwhelming.
Kristin Scott Thomas leads a small but stellar ensemble, playing Janet, the newly elected Minister of Health. To celebrate her victory, she’s invited some friends over for a party. But her professor husband Bill (Timothy Spall) proves a distraction, wallowing in a foul mood and his favorite records. Not even Janet’s sharp-tongued American friend (Patricia Clarkson) and her big-hearted hippie boyfriend (Bruno Ganz) can improve Bill’s humor. Things only get more uncomfortable at the arrival of Bill’s colleague Martha (Cherry Jones) and her pregnant wife (Emily Mortimer), who’re teetering on a relationship-quaking fight. Finally, into all this awkwardness bumbles Tom (Cillian Murphy), a coked-up banker who has got a gun tucked in his blazer.
More or less told in real time, The Party spins from common social awkwardness to soap opera-level histrionics, thanks to a mounting series of life-rattling reveals. See, Bill has a secret. But so too does his picture-perfect partner, and their supportive friends, and the over-stimulated suit. It’s the stuff of drama, but played for laughs thanks to Potter’s satirical wit that cuts through the bullshit of intellectual elitism, and exposes each of these respectable, educated upper crusters to be as messy as the rabble they speak of in tender but condescending terms. The Party plays as a chamber drama, never venturing beyond the Janet’s lovely London home, and thereby trapping the social tension to claustrophobic effect. Potter relishes our choking on it, turning up the giddying suspense with each sordid surprise.
The performances here are master class. Thomas is a vision of beatific elegance as she glides canapés in the oven while juggling phone calls, and carrying on hostess-appropriate small talk. Then, she deftly chips away at this this flawless façade, exposing pulsating regret and raw outrage. Jones and Mortimer make a mesmerizing duo, performing a dance of evasion and placation that seems a painfully precise critique of modern marriage. Spall finds nuance in wallowing, and spark laughs with some surprising–and violent–slapstick. Murphy is the wild card, electric and dangerous. Yet he manages to lace in a vulnerability that begs for sympathy. Almost annoyingly pleasant and eternally calm, Ganz is a perfect foil to Clarkson, who wields withering remarks with a savage grace. Each of them maneuvers the turns of phrase in Potter’s script with an impeccable agility, and breathes life into what could otherwise be viewed as caricatures of posh privilege. Though for me, Clarkson was the standout, switching from an exasperated scorn to cheeky censure and jet-black jokes about the potential upside of homicide, all in the blink of one, perfectly curled eyelash.
Watching The Party feels like seeing an excellent theatrical production. And that’s part of the problem. The film never feels particularly cinematic. Performances are competently captured, yet the cinematography fails to elevate the material. The choice of shooting in black-and-white seems unmotivated or arbitrary. But most galling of all is the abrupt way Potter ends her story. After so many emotional explosions, biting battles, and gasp-pulling surprises, she goes out on a not-so-shocking final reveal and a DOA joke. Then, it’s curtains, cutting us off from the party, the characters, and their unresolved threads.
As the credits rolled, I felt cheated, robbed of a climax that suited this sophisticated and deliciously dark comedy. In the end, The Party felt like a feast that laid out one surprising and delectable delight after another. Then came time for dessert, where I was served not a slobber-inducing delicacy, but a moldy hard candy and a stiff shove out the door.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko a co-host for the Sirius XM show It’s Erik Nagel, and has taught a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com