'The Party': Film Review | Berlin 2017

The Party   - Still 1 - H 2017
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Sally Potter and the dinner party of secrets.

Patricia Clarkson, Cillian Murphy, Timothy Spall and Kristin Scott Thomas get more than their just deserts in British director Sally Potter's dark comedy of manners, which is competing for big prizes in Berlin.

A gathering of old friends fasten their seatbelts for a bumpy night of explosive revelations in The Party, a Berlin competition contender from veteran British writer-director Sally Potter. Boasting a stellar international ensemble cast including Patricia Clarkson, Cillian Murphy, Kristin Scott Thomas and Timothy Spall, Potter’s talk-heavy chamber farce was filmed on a West London studio set in just two weeks, which may help explain its adrenalized energy and lean running time.

Attractively shot in timeless monochrome, The Party is indebted to a long tradition of dinner-party-from-hell classics including Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen. Alas, Potter never musters the same taboo-trashing satirical bite as these cinematic landmarks. Despite touching on some edgy themes, The Party is ultimately a conventional comedy of social manners. How very British.

Which may sound like damning Potter with faint praise, but not so. The Party might lack the striking originality of her more formally experimental work, like Orlando or The Tango Lesson, but it puts a contemporary spin on a reliably popular genre, and is arguably the most effortlessly fun film of her career. The starry cast and witty script should boost theatrical potential outside the festival circuit, and could even score Potter a rare commercial hit.

The single setting is a well-appointed London home on an auspicious night for hostess Janet (Scott Thomas), a career politician celebrating her prestige promotion to shadow health minister in the unnamed parliamentary opposition party. Ominously, her academic husband, Bill (Spall), appears to be in shock at the news, numbing himself with booze to a soundtrack of jazz and blues on crackly old-school vinyl.

Among the first guests at the party is April (Clarkson), a former idealist turned wisecracking cynic, accompanied by an unlikely partner in the shape of ageing New Age hippie Gottfried (Bruno Ganz). Martha (Cherry Jones) is a veteran feminist college professor whose younger English wife, Jinny (Emily Mortimer), has just learned she is pregnant with triplets. The wild card in the pack, millionaire banker Tom (Murphy), arrives in a highly agitated state with a generous stash of cocaine and a concealed firearm. What could possibly go wrong?

Everything can, of course, and dutifully does. Sticking to classic farce rules, almost everybody in The Party is harboring a dark secret which will shatter their cosy complacency by the end of the evening. Following a dramatic confession of terminal illness, extramarital affairs come to light, relationships teeter on the brink of collapse, barbed words are exchanged and punches thrown. And then the gun comes out. Over 71 crisp minutes of fast-paced verbal combat, Potter tests the age-old theory that it’s all fun and games until somebody gets knocked unconscious.

Filming just as the Brexit vote took place, Potter’s avowed agenda with The Party was to make a state-of-the-nation commentary on 21st century Britain. Underscoring this intention, she opens with guitarist Fred Frith’s gorgeously mournful avant-blues take on the ico nic English hymn Jerusalem. The dialogue also touches on timely talking points including current fashions in feminism, social media trolls, disillusionment with mainstream democratic politics and the ongoing crisis in the U.K.’s National Health Service. But these are largely cosmetic details. In its evergreen themes and stylistic essentials, The Party is the kind of self-skewering middle-class farce that could have graced a West End stage at any point during the last five or six decades.

These chamber-farce conventions occasionally creak a little. It stretches credibility that any of these ill-matched couples would end up together in real life, and it is an even more absurd contrivance that none have shared their secrets before this fateful night. Most of the protagonists are brittle caricatures, while some of the performances shade into the sort of over-emphatic mugging that might work onstage but looks hammy in big-screen close-up.

Even so, The Party is full of cheeky narrative twists and delightful surface details. Alexey Rodionov’s sumptuous black-and-white photography reinforces the sense of classic ingredients repackaged in a contemporary context. Likewise the sublime musical backdrop of antique jazz, blues and reggae from the likes of Bo Diddley, John Coltrane and Albert Ayler.

Crucially, Potter keeps the energy fizzing and the jokes crackling throughout the drama’s short span, which unfolds in something like real time. Clarkson gets most of the sharpest lines, and delivers them with deadpan relish. “Tickle an aromatherapist and you find a Nazi,” she scoffs at Gottfried. “You’re a first-class lesbian and a second-rate thinker,” she tells Martha. More of this Bette Davis-level acidity would have been welcome in a charming little tragicomedy which flirts with savage social satire but never fully embraces it.

Production companies: Great Point Media, Adventure Pictures
Cast: Patricia Clarkson, June Cherry, Bruno Ganz, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy, Kristin Scott Thomas, Timothy Spall
Director-screenwriter: Sally Potter
Producers: Christopher Sheppard, Kurban Kassam
Cinematographer: Alexey Rodionov
Editors : Anders Refn, Emilie Orsini
Production designer: Carlos Conti
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: ICM Partners (North Amertica), Great Point Media (world)

No rating, 71 minutes