Sally Potter’s dark-hued state-of-the-nation comedy The Party weighs in at a mere 71 minutes – the shortest feature film I’ve seen in quite a while. But I promise you won’t leave feeling short-changed: it’s crammed with incident, sharp, witty dialogue and enough plot twists to carry a movie twice its length.
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It marks a change of direction (however temporary) for Potter, who is still best known for her 1992 adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, starring an androgynous Tilda Swinton. She is a serious film-maker (sometimes to a fault) and fashions her dramas to highlight issues. With The Party, issues remain front and centre, but are couched in sly, witty comedy.
The film’s title has a dual meaning. It features a gathering at a well-appointed London home whose hostess, Janet, has invited half a dozen guests to celebrate with her on being appointed shadow minister of health. Her party? That would be Labour.
The cast is impeccable. Kristin Scott Thomas plays the calm, assured Janet, whose entire life will change during the evening. Timothy Spall plays her husband Bill, a melancholy academic, who reveals a devastating secret about his failing health early on. Janet’s best friend April (Patricia Clarkson, who almost steals the whole show) is a bitchy socialite with the sharpest of tongues. She doesn’t even spare her husband Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), a vague, chilled-out life coach, enamoured of alternative medicine. The odd man out at this party is Tom (Cillian Murphy), a sharp-suited, jittery banker who arrives and immediately heads off to snort some cocaine in private. It’s also clear that Tom has brought a gun with him: and we all know that if a gun enters a story it will eventually be used.
It’s not a spoiler to mention this gun, which appears in the film’s very first scene, brandished by Janet as she opens her front door to an unknown caller. But that scene is actually part of the film’s climax: after it, we whip back in time for an hour to see how events unravelled towards this chilling climax.
Potter’s ingeniously written story is about people who parade virtuous attitudes, but betray them by their deeds. Without question, it’s a sideswipe at politicians and political life, but her aim is broader than that –she’s targeting Britain’s comfortable middle classes here.
The Party has the refreshing kick of a plunge into cold water. Its pace never slackens, it constantly teases and surprises, and while its milieu – an elegant drawing room – might suggest a cosy, traditional one-act play, Potter turns it into something else: a comedy that is uncomfortable and hilarious in equal measure.