When a television series sets an episode entirely in one room, often in real time, it’s usually a cost-saving measure, yet these “bottle episodes” can be among the most memorable due to the creative, character-focused solutions they find to their limitations. When a movie does this, though, we have a tendency to dismiss it as “stagey,” probably because so many of these, like Roman Polanski’s Carnage, are indeed adapted from the stage. Sally Potter’s dagger-sharp new comedy, The Party (an original screenplay by Potter herself) avoids such accusations, mostly by learning the lessons of TV storytelling. First, it’s all about the characters; each of the seven individuals here is clearly delineated and rich in depth. Secondly, keep it short; The Party runs a delightful 71 minutes in total.
Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) has just become Britain’s Minister of Health and is throwing a small dinner party to celebrate. On the guest list is her husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), her friend April (Patricia Clarkson) and her boyfriend, Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), married couple Martha (Cherry Jones) and Jinny (Emily Mortimer) and, finally, Tom (Cillian Murphy), whose wife will be joining the party later for dessert. Or cheese. Or coffee. Before anything but drinks have even been served, though, Bill makes a startling confession. A few minutes after that, he makes another one. Chaos ensues with startling efficiency.
Potter’s nimble, witty screenplay, full of bon mots and rejoinders from its well-educated, upper crust characters, brings to mind the works of Whit Stillman, if his characters lowered themselves into the dirty business of politics and finance. The Party is a comedy of manners that illustrates how those with the most manners are undone the quickest.
It’s difficult, in a cast this stacked, to pick a favorite but Clarkson gets the best role she’s had at least since Isable Coixet’s Learning to Drive and probably even before that. There are plenty of good lines to go around but Clarkson seems to consistently get the best ones (“You’re always arguing with a God you don’t believe in just in case He’s listening”; “Tickle an aromatherapist and you’ll find a fascist”). More importantly, she reveals the most about Potter’s worldview. In a pointedly comical development, April, the most cynical character in the movie, also turns out to be the most morally upright and reliable one.
Aleksei Rodionov’s black and white cinematography is, in some ways, a throwback to the high tension of Alfred Hitchcock or of Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In other ways, though—like the use of close-ups with extremely shallow depths of field—the look is very of the moment.
This push and pull between the past and the bleeding edge is crucial to The Party and its characters. It’s heavily suggested that Janet and, presumably, everyone else present are members of the anti-Brexit Labour Party (giving the title a dual meaning). Standing on the precipice of de-unification, their principles are perhaps about to be tested in ways they never have been before. In Janet’s modest home on this evening, the same thing is happening. Long held assumptions are being challenged. Idealism is crashing up against reality and pragmatism. The Party is heady stuff. Luckily, it’s also funny as hell and its brisk, all killer no filler approach will leave you wishing you could have outstayed your welcome.