A new film from Sally Potter is a rarity — and always a treat. She is primarily known for the lush cult favorite Orlando — based on the Virginia Woolf novel — starring a luminous Tilda Swinton in a career-launching role. Potter has always been a director to watch, whether it’s experimenting with spoken verse in Yes or indulging in evocative ‘60s radicalism and teenage lust in Ginger & Rosa. She’s a literate director and her films are immersive experiences that linger.
Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) hosts a party to celebrate her promotion to Shadow Minister of Health in opposition, inviting an intimate group of friends. But it will be an evening of announcements — each successively more damaging than the last — wrecking the veneer of civility to reveal deep rifts between all parties. By the end of the night, everyone will lose something and there’ll be blood on the floor.
The Party is Potter’s most modern film yet, both topical and uncomfortably real, playing out in real time. In the course of an efficient 71 minutes, we are philosophically tossed from financial crises to spiritual healing, from the failure of democracy to revenge. It sounds heavy, but Potter has always been intellectually playful.
Described as “a comedy of tragic proportions”, it certainly takes the comic moments from hurtful truths — Patricia Clarkson’s April delights in bursting hypocrises with cutting barbs: “You’re a first-rate lesbian, Martha, and a second-rate thinker.”
The guest list is an intriguing one.
Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient, The Horse Whisperer, Darkest Hour) as Janet, appears — after a gruelling campaign — on the cusp of professional success, yet she is emotionally lost. It’s an unusual role for Thomas, whose tendency is to play aloof or superior women, yet this makes Janet’s weaknesses feel all the more truthful.
Timothy Spall (Harry Potter, Denial, Mr Turner) is Janet’s husband Bill, who has given up a respectable professorial career at Yale to allow Janet her political ambitions. From the start, he appears preoccupied — even mournful — playing his records and disinterestedly chatting with his guests. But it is his revelation that unwinds the night, and Spall is such a fine actor that — with his secrets outed — he takes centre stage and becomes vividly alive, owning the room.
Patricia Clarkson (The Station Agent, Cairo Time, The Maze Runner) is Janet’s cynical best friend, April. April is the satirical heart of the film — a former idealist, ground down through disappointment at democracy’s failure to achieve any good, to a realist who hails “direct action”. Her barbed observations bridge almost every beat, keeping the film on track, like a narrator.
Clarkson plays her with a weary sarcasm — as though expecting the worst in everyone and everything — that is highly amusing (she does get all the best lines).
When her German partner, Gottfried (Bruno Ganz — Downfall, The Reader, Youth Without Youth) — a self-proclaimed life coach and healer she constantly demeans — raises his hand to her in annoyance, she is glib: “See? Tickle an aromatherapist and you find a fascist.”
Emily Mortimer (Bright Young Things, Lars and the Real Girl, The Sense of an Ending) and Cherry Jones (Erin Brockovich, Ocean’s Twelve, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) play lesbian couple Jinny and Martha, an amateur cook and radical feminist professor respectively. During the course of the night, they happily announce the arrival of triplets via IVF — but all is not well in their relationship. They are intriguingly juxtaposed with the childless Bill and Janet who appear to have a solid, professional marriage.
Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later, Batman Begins, Dunkirk) is Tom — a manic, jittery banker, married to the oft-mentioned but absent Marianne, whom everyone adores. He is constantly in the bathroom, chopping lines of cocaine to ironically steady himself against his impending accusations. He, alone, of these characters, stands for pitiless capitalism rather than the academic idealism of Martha, Janet, and Bill.
When Bill accuses him of being one of the grubby bankers causing economic collapse, Tom cries, “Ideas didn’t buy this house. Money bought this house!” His meltdown is both amusing and awful.
The film is meticulously directed by Potter, in glorious close-ups, and crisply lensed by her Orlando cinematographer, Alexey Rodionov, in stark black and white — the intention, which works superbly, to lay everything bare without the convolutions of colour. There’s also a great energy to the film, thanks largely to Anders Refn’s brisk editing.
But, despite the clever writing, The Party is genuine only when the comedy comes to the fore, the bourgeois treatises and spiritual dogma — rather than hitting the zeitgeist — mire the film in a tiresome worthiness. But it is articulate and wry with self-knowledge, and while it may not be Potter’s most interesting film, it may well be her most accessible.
Feature image credit: Adventure Pictures, Oxwich Media.
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