If fewer people threw dinner parties, and more people threw grenades, society might take a turn for the better. Maybe. Of course, a lot would depend on the direction those grenades were thrown in. Perhaps at those throwing dinner parties? Well, figuratively, this is what Sally Potter does with her whip-smart The Party. In the shape of a drawing room farce, Potter has written and directed a near perfect state-of-the-nation film.
A stinging indictment of chattering class complacency, The Party takes the pulse of a country falling to pieces.
The full cast is itself something of a fantasy guest list – Timothy Spall, Kristin Scott Thomas, Cillian Murphy, Patricia Clarkson, Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer, and Bruno Ganz. One of two things happens when so many outstanding actors are in a single film: it either fizzles out because they try to outdo one another, or they pool their talents into something remarkable. For the most part, The Party is firmly in the latter category. Everyone here is so obviously playing at the top their game, Potter could have put her feet up and let the camera roll.
Shot in black and white and set entirely in a London home, the film centres upon Janet (Scott Thomas), a woman recently made Shadow Health Minister for what the film implies, but never confirms, is the Labour party. Potter has indeed talked about wanting to make a film about the disarray of the British Left (though one wonders if Corbyn’s success has changed this pessimism). Dalloway-like, Janet is preparing a party to celebrate her new job, and in the best tradition of Chekhov through to Pinter, this is where things start to go wrong.
Her husband, played by Timothy Spall, sits in a drunken stupor in the front room, listening to music and bearing secrets whose divulgence will cause a stir, to put it mildly. Guests soon arrive, including the acid tongued April and her old hippy hubby (Clarkson and Ganz), a wanker banker with a concealed weapon (Murphy), and a lesbian academic along with her pregnant partner (Jones and Mortimer). It’s a testament to the films’ strengths that, despite such contrivance, the resulting chaos feels wonderfully organic.
The question of whether Potter ever escapes from the bourgeois self-regard she is satirising is worth keeping in mind, and some of the film’s one-liners are a little too crafted. That said, The Party has to be one of the sharpest take downs of champagne socialists – and of cosy intellectuals generally – for decades.
As Britain continues to go from frying pan to fire, and with seemingly reckless abandon, this film is a much needed slap in the face for those who feel secure enough to watch the disaster from behind twitching curtains.