Starring Kristin Scott Thomas. Rated PG
Writer-director Sally Potter came on strong 25 years ago with Orlando, the gender-bending time-travel movie that made Tilda Swinton a star. Potter has been less than prolific since then, working in theatre and opera between movies. The Party feels like a one-act play, in fact. It’s a mere 70 minutes long, with only seven characters. But the actors couldn’t be better, and the crisp black-and-white cinematography gives the movie a high-toned sheen that elevates what’s essentially a broad drawing-room farce.
The title has two meanings. A standard-issue dinner gathering is about to take place, and the host, busy in the kitchen, is also her own guest of honour. Janet (impatient Englishwoman Kristin Scott Thomas) has just been named health minister in the shadow cabinet of a parliamentary party—unspecified, but probably Labour, considering some of the lofty ideals, and post-Brexit cynicism, bandied about when the guests arrive.
These include Martha (U.S. theatre giant Cherry Jones), a successful academic, and her younger partner, Jinny (Emily Mortimer), who just found out she’s pregnant with triplets, no less. Then there’s Janet’s closest pal, caustic Yank April (a show-stealing Patricia Clarkson), and her partner, Gottfried (Wings of Desire’s great Bruno Ganz), who speaks in new-agey clichés. Late to the soiree is Tom (Ireland’s Cillian Murphy), a “wanker-banker”, as April calls him.
Silently overseeing all the group palaver is Janet’s husband, Bill, played by Timothy Spall, whose presence underlines the resemblance to early Mike Leigh movies. When not staring vacantly into space, Bill drinks wine and spins vinyl albums (mostly ’60s jazz), until he makes a sudden medical announcement, that he is “definitely done-for”. This throws off the festivities, and the rest of the movie’s short run is spent with everyone trying to figure out a viable next move, to amusing effect.
The title also recalls ’90s Dogme movies like The Celebration, in which family secrets are spilled alongside too much alcohol. Fortunately, this Party doesn’t take itself that seriously. Mainly, it’s a chance for expert thespians to riff wildly, like the Ornette Coleman records Bill likes. And there’s a punch line at the end that…well, I’ve already said too much.