“The movie becomes too reluctant to form a direct line between its plot and the viewer lest it lose track of its own thematic undercurrents.”
by Ken Bakely
In the movies, dinner parties usually don’t end well. Sally Potter’s The Party isn’t interested in becoming an exception, and from the outset, it tears into its savaging of its caricaturish characters with great aplomb. But there’s nowhere for the film to go from there, and once it establishes the general unpleasantness of its subjects, and their clear existence as personifications of different sectors of the British cultural, economic, and political elite in a post-Brexit world, it can’t do anything else except run around in circles. Everyone exchanges crisp verbal fireworks aplenty, and largely avoids physical confrontation until things get completely out of hand. They fight over the most momentary of attention, over who has the best or worst news to share at a given time, and over whose suggestions for other people’s predicaments are the most ludicrous. In Potter’s quest to analyze the current political climate through the most manic of farce, she doesn’t allow her characters to engage in ways that ever make them feel human.
Yet these failures are not for lack of trying, especially on the part of the cast. Kristin Scott Thomas leads as Janet, an earnest politician who has been appointed shadow health minister for the opposition, a promotion which was the initial subject of the dinner. Alongside her partner Bill (Timothy Spall), the guests include her longtime friend, the cynical April (Patricia Clarkson) and her holistic-healer boyfriend Gottfried (Bruno Ganz); noted feminist academic Martha (Cherry Jones) and her pregnant partner Jinny (Emily Mortimer); and banker Tom (Cillian Murphy), who is married to one of Janet’s colleagues. Their disparate backgrounds and ideologies bring immediate conflict. But that’s only the beginning, as order is further undone by stunning revelations of past affairs, current illnesses, and imminent separations. It’s from here that The Party should kick into high gear as the actors engage each other with Potter’s scalding dialogue, but it’s all too rigid, confined to a few rooms in Janet’s house, and never much broader than its limited world.
Potter has described The Party as being about a “broken England,” a rift between the classes of people traditionally thought to be in gentle control of the social tides who have now found themselves amidst overwhelming and unexpected developments. We’re well aware of how she wants to convey that. In fact, we’re probably too aware of it. The film operates with the point-scoring and strained messaging of a middling theatre project. Combine that with the fact that characters only really move at the very beginning and end of scenes, and the production is further harmed by such cramped staginess, without the energy of live performance to keep our interest.
It amounts to a kind of telling over showing. Not in the traditional sense of the term – there isn’t much exposition in The Party for it to devote long stretches of time to chronicling its characters’ lives beyond what they naturally reveal in conversation – but the film is plagued by acute self-awareness that feels too explanatory. It abruptly cuts between parallel conversations in different rooms, as Aleksei Rodinov’s sharp black and white photography deliberately keeps the audience at a distant observer’s standpoint. The movie becomes too reluctant to form a direct line between its plot and the viewer lest it lose track of its own thematic undercurrents. It’s one thing to admire the acidic dialogue at face-value, but it only gets you so far, since Potter supercharges each big exchange with the hopes of crafting complex satire that the writing is never tight enough to support.
Consequently, there are only vague outlines and fuzzy allusions. Janet’s glowing idealism for democratic reconciliation is battered from all angles – from April’s open befuddlement at her perceived naïveté to Gottfried’s decrying of Western philosophy and science to begin with. It’s implied that she’s a Labour Party politician, and it’s quite possible that besides Potter’s ill-formed attempts at addressing all spheres of the British political class, the film’s title attains a second meaning when one realizes that the varied personalities of Janet’s guests mirrors Labour’s rocky journey from Blair to Corbyn, and the resistance of the party bigwigs to accept such changes. But these notions are as softly kicked around as the dialogue is brashly shouted. What The Party misses altogether is communication between is subtexts and texts, and it evokes little except amusement in its most over-the-top twists.