The Party opens with a gun pointed directly at the audience. Though we know that we’re in no danger, the wild look in the eyes of the person holding the gun tells us that whoever’s in our position within the film is in big trouble. With such a memorable beginning, the rest of writer-director Sally Potter’s latest film could be a let down. However, it only builds from there, delivering so many plot twists and emotional bombshells that it’s actually the ending, which finally gives us context for the opening shot, that feels like a letdown.
The film unfolds like a very dense one-act play. All the action takes place on the first floor of a posh (presumably) London home occupied by Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Bill (Timothy Spall). Janet has just become the UK’s Shadow Minister for Health and decides to throw a party to, as her friend April later puts it, reaffirm her feminine bonafides. April–if it’s not already obvious–is a cynic and as one of the few Americans in attendance seems to feel quite comfortable mercilessly criticizing UK politics despite her friends’ involvement in it. Indeed, April hurls every hurtful sentence like a dagger straight to the heart. She intends to damage and she frequently succeeds.
The only person who comes close to matching her quick wits is fellow American Cherry Jones as Martha, a professor of some off-shoot of gender and economic studies whose wife, Jinny (Emily Mortimer at her most anxious and wounded), has just discovered she’s pregnant. Rounding out the cast is Cillian Murphy as Tom, a coke-fueled finance guy, and Bruno Ganz as Gottfried, April’s boyfriend and a new age-y healer whom nobody takes seriously.
Watching this ragtag group of people interact, it’s somewhat difficult to believe they’d actually be friends—and that’s kind of the point. The Party is absolutely an allegory and Potter is exploring the interplay and conflict amongst all these trends in current British political discourse. It’s a little difficult to explain exactly how without ruining some of the film’s best twists, but let’s just say it’s no coincidence that Janet is about to start working on the National Health Service or that Tom’s wife, Mariam, looms large over the film despite never appearing onscreen.
However, though they’re mostly playing types, the actors manage to sell the personal drama that fuels so much of the plot. Mortimer and Jones give perhaps the earthiest performances and it’s appropriate that they’re paired together. Clarkson and Ganz are a bit more absurd, caricatures of two extremes on a spectrum of hawkishness and pacifism forced into a romantic relationship. Spall and Thomas are perhaps the most realistic humans of the bunch, but you also never forget that you’re watching two great British actors. The only performance that doesn’t quite work is Murphy’s. Tom is just a bit too unhinged and, even as self-obsessed as these characters are, it’s hard to believe it takes everyone so long to notice.
Still, The Party and its actors wouldn’t be quite so effective without the other elements that complete the package. One is the music. Each song comes thanks to a series of vinyl records Bill and others play throughout the titular gathering. Each song sets the mood or acts as a way to heighten the tension in an already tense conversation. They’re even used to hilarious, somewhat perverse effect near the end when two characters try to find the right music to keep another from dying.
The final element is the visual style. Filmed in black-and-white with digital cameras, cinematographer Alexey Rodionov uses light and shadows to give each shot texture—occasionally throwing in a canted angle to emphasize a character’s skewed frame of mind. The look deliberately recalls films like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but–despite the visual similarities–the final twist is actually not that difficult to guess. After the way the rest of the film constantly heightens the tension, the last shot delivers one shock too many and that final, ridiculous moment can leave a bad taste on an otherwise excellent film.
The Party is fueled by fury and passion. While much of its drama is personal, it’s also inescapably political. Every choice the characters make or every reaction they have to the drama surrounding them is couched in their political views. Perhaps, in a less tumultuous real-world political climate in both Britain and America, making such a clear connection between them would seem unrealistic or heavy-handed. But Potter makes it feel brutally real. And sure, maybe there’s no true catharsis in the obvious nihilism on display, but sometimes it’s nice to revel in anger in a world spiraling out of control.