Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her husband Bill (Timothy Spall) are having a party for close friends after Janet’s unspecified British political party wins an election, putting her in the position of Health Minister. One by one the friends arrive: staunch pessimist April (Patricia Clarkson), her life coach husband Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), Bill’s university colleague Martha (Cherry Jones) and her pregnant wife Jinny (Emily Mortimer), and finally Tom (Cillian Murphy), the husband of Janet’s aide-de-camp who has arrived coked to the eyeballs and secretly armed with a handgun. Needless to say, the party begins civilly enough but quickly descends into a night of accusation, paranoia and violence.
Sally Potter’s brutal satire on modern society and politics starts quietly and builds to a hilarious crescendo as she manipulates her room of characters like a maestro conducting an orchestra. Working with a murderers’ row of acting talent from Britain, Europe and America, it isn’t hard for Potter to hit the right comedic beats at the right time, as they are all on very fine form here. The black and white cinematography and the single location give the film the right amount of claustrophobia, which gets tighter and tighter as the story progresses.
One is reminded, at least at first, of the Australian play Don’s Party by David Williamson, as a group of friends congregate (in this instance after the election) and as the liquor flows an unspoken tension rises to the surface and the cordial atmosphere begins to fracture. Then in the later scenes it begins to resemble Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, as the characters seem to feel trapped inside the house, unable to escape the escalating events, even though the front door is right there in front of them.
The Party feels more like a filmed play than a piece of cinema, but with the acting talent on display that hardly matters, the script is thing and these performers make it positively sing. Kristin Scott Thomas and Timothy Spall are excellent as the upper class married couple whose relationship teeters on the brink of collapse, Murphy is wonderfully unhinged as the cocaine addled, villainised investment banker, and Jones and Mortimer provide a great counterpoint to one another, with Jones as the freewheeling feminist and Mortimer the traditional family woman. But the standouts in a film of standouts have to be Patricia Clarkson and Bruno Ganz. Clarkson spends the entire movie spouting pessimistic and unhelpful rhetoric while Ganz is superb as the hippy guru wannabe, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the room, whispering new age gibberish, much to the consternation of most in the room.
The Party is whip-smart satire at its very best. A cast of incredible actors given a sparkling script can raise any film above the stratosphere and they do just that very thing here. Potter is a master filmmaker and may not be working at full capacity but she doesn’t have to. She gives the film exactly what it needs to be a claustrophobic, tightly wound snapshot of absurd humanity at its most acerbic.