The year is still young, but there’s not much chance that you will have yet seen, or will soon see, a better ensemble comedy than Sally Potter’s The Party. There are reasons to be suspicious of that claim. First, the director is Sally Potter, and we all remember what a knee-slapper Orlando was. Also, it’s shot in black and white and features a dauntingly long list of boldface names in the credits, like a lesser late-period Woody Allen. And when was the last time Bruno Ganz appeared in a comedy? Still, from the first flash-forward appearance of a frazzled Kristin Scott Thomas brandishing a pistol through the onion-skin layering of the initially celebratory and ultimately catastrophic dinner party that follows, this is a high-spirited black comedy with a crackling, biting energy.
Thomas plays Janet, a vaguely defined politician who is having a few friends over to celebrate her being made minister. As they start piling in, wine is poured, canapes prepared, and both passive- and fully-aggressive blades of small talk are unsheathed. Meanwhile, Janet’s husband Bill (Timothy Spall) sits zombie-like in the family while guests circle around him. His moon-like face gives away nothing but a great silent sorrow while he swigs wine, plays Bo Diddley at top volume, seems wholly unimpressed by Janet’s achievement, and makes pronouncements like “I’m Bill … I used to be.”
Potter foregrounds the minor action, a swirl of catty and one-upping dialogue that swirls between one single, Tom (Cillian Murphy), and two couples: April (Patricia Clarkson) and Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), and Martha (Cherry Jones) and Jinny (Emily Mortimer). They snipe and joke and argue while a trio of secrets burrows darkly behind all the bright patter. First, what is wrong with Bill? Second, who is Janet surreptitiously talking to on the phone? Third, why is Tom, an out of place city banker in this den of professors and politicos, all coked-up and carrying a handgun?
Bringing her usual cut-glass clarity to the role, Thomas neatly channels all the increasingly hostile energy churning through her tasteful bourgeois townhouse into an ever-more taut and vibrating manner. Clarkson’s April takes the part of balloon-popping cynic, telling Janet with astringent nonchalance, “I’m proud of you, even though I think democracy is finished.” She’s beautifully paired with an aphorism-spouting old hippie like Gottfried, who Ganz inhabits with a beatific serenity even when April declares she’s happy to be breaking up with him, and also that “your clichés are unbearable”. The less interesting couple by far are Martha and Jinny, whose relationship squabbling serves as more background noise and evidence for why this group may not be the enlightened and open-minded intellectuals all their outward trappings and well-schooled dialogue would have us think.
This being Sally Potter, The Party can’t be just a party, of course. We know that this is meant to be in some ways a state of the nation piece, with things to say about where Britain is headed. Not surprisingly, the news isn’t good. The characters may be a (with at least one exception) mostly intelligent and open-minded enough on the surface gaggle of Guardian-reading liberals who steadfastly back Janet’s career-long dedication to the ideals of the National Health Service. This all leads to some heavy-handed debate on public versus private healthcare and the odd perfunctory reminiscence about their more radical college youths. The mood is sour, as is to be expected. After all, how many state-of-the-nation works of art have come up with the answer: Everything is awesome?
But the occasional jutting block of unpolished dialogue aside—an expected risk for such a quickly thrown-together piece like this (Potter shot it all in just two weeks)—The Party jumps past it all with smartly-acted aplomb. Clocking in at a swift 71 minutes, its mix of shattered-window tension and note-perfect class satire goes down like a good dry gimlet.