Film Review: The Party

British art-house legend Sally Potter turns to black comedy, with a dryly wicked take on upper-class privilege and middle-aged adultery.
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Sally Potter’s The Party is like an invitation to a classic Woody Allen comedy. Not the early funny ones, though. The later, dark ones.

It’s shot in black-and-white and scored to old records. It features a small cast populated with very good actors (all undoubtedly working for a fraction of their usual quote). It’s full of self-involved, privileged characters and set in the sort of home most popcorn munchers can only dream of. And it’s very bright, and very bitter.

That part, at least, isn’t surprising to a real Potter fan. The fabulously idiosyncratic, fiercely independent British director started turning out films in 1969, while simultaneously turning her back on conventional storytelling. Her career reached a sort of zenith with 1992’s Orlando. A perfect politically forward storm, it combined avant-garde direction with a gender-shifting story from Virginia Woolf and a shimmering, early performance from the already elusive Tilda Swinton.

Recently, Potter has made more accessible works, including 2000’s period romance The Man Who Cried, with Johnny Depp, and 2012’s Ginger & Rosa, a female-friendship drama set during the Ban-the-Bomb ’60s. The Party brings us up to the present day, stripping away any historical or artistic distractions. There is one set, and seven characters. The camerawork is handheld, and the story largely takes place in real time.

It begins with Janet, a 60-ish politician, hosting a small get-together at her London townhouse to celebrate her opposition-party appointment as Shadow Minister for Health. Her husband, Bill, seems to be already drunk, and unaccountably depressed, but soon the guests arrive—the snarky April and her life-coach lover Gottfried, Martha and her wife Jinny (thrilled with the recent news that IVF treatments have resulted in potential triplets). Meanwhile, Tom, an agitated banker, comes sans wife but with a pocket full of cocaine, and a secret he’s desperate to spill.

The stage is set for a comedy of ill manners, as the champagne is popped and old resentments uncorked, and the cast is almost uniformly superb. The effortlessly regal Kristin Scott Thomas shines as the always-in-command Janet, while Timothy Spall quickly grabs our concern as her moody husband. Cherry Jones and Emily Mortimer sparkle as a nicely mismatched pair, too—Mortimer’s girlish Jinny bubbling along while Jones’ Martha talks ponderously about her studies in “Domestic Labor Gender Differentiation in American Utopianism.” And although Cillian Murphy over-emotes a bit as Tom—he acts as if he’s playing another Christopher Nolan villain—Bruno Ganz is a sweetly annoying presence as the blissfully disconnected Gottfried, an aging New Ager who seems in constant search of a drumming circle.

Best, though is Patricia Clarkson as April, a leftier-than-thou radical who sneers at Martha’s lesbianism, Gottfried’s optimism and Janet’s idealism. Everything is a pose, to her, another distraction from the “real” struggle, and every sincerely stated belief just another hot-air balloon waiting to be pricked. It’s a great role and Clarkson clearly loves playing it, although Potter seems to have fallen a bit too much in love with April, too—the screenplay gives her all the best jokes (just as Allen’s old scripts routinely gave him all the punch lines).

Like Allen’s films, too, Potter’s The Party can feel a bit exclusionary, a gag we’re not quite in on. There isn’t a person of color in the cast, or even anyone under 40, and no one seems to worry about money; several characters don’t seem to work at all, and the few academics on hand are, of course, comfortably tenured. For some moviegoers, Potter’s latest will feel nearly as remote as her early experimental shorts, a slightly chilly exercise more interested in positions than people.

But it is undeniably fast and wickedly witty—and in the midst of the February doldrums as bracing and perhaps as necessary as a generous shot of gin. This is one “Party” worth going to.

Click here for cast and crew information.