Short sharp black comedy
If, to coin a phrase, a week is a long time in politics, then two years is an absolute eternity. Sally Potter’s (on double duty as director and writer) The Party was written two years ago and it really shows. That’s no criticism: it just demonstrates how quickly the political landscape has changed in such a short period of time. And perhaps how little.
The party of the title is thrown by Janet (Kristen Scott Thomas) to celebrate her promotion to Shadow Minister For Health for “an entirely useless opposition party.” She’s constantly taking calls from well-wishers as her guests arrive. First comes April (Patricia Clarkson), her best friend who never lets anything pass without a made-to-measure acerbic comment. She arrives with partner Gottfried (Bruno Ganz) and the gulf between them is a mile wide. Martha (Cherry Jones), who April describes as “a first rate lesbian and a second rate thinker” and her pregnant wife Jilly (Emily Mortimer) are next. And finally is one half of another couple. Tom (Cillian Murphy), husband of the invisible Marianne. He dives straight into the bathroom for the first of several snorts of cocaine and comes packing a pistol. But why?
We’ve seen that pistol before – in Janet’s hands. The film starts with her opening the front door to a visitor, dramatically brandishing the weapon and looking like she’s going to shoot at any second. Not exactly the welcome you expect from a celebration, but it’s the first of many signs that this is one party that isn’t going to end well. Discussions about health, feminism and class arrive with the various guests – there’s little or no time for social niceties – and then the atmosphere is soured by two big revelations.
The first involves Janet’s husband, the grizzled Bill (Timothy Spall) who is vaguely aware of what’s going on around him, but less than interested. Until then, most of the laughs have been courtesy of April’s commentary. But, as Bill faces the biggest challenge of his life, the comedy morphs into the darkest of hues. And, appropriately enough, so does the food being cooked for the party, which ends up cremated in the oven.
Taken together, the writing and the film’s exemplary ensemble cast are more than enough to make it stand out, but there’s something else that makes it both unusual and satisfying. The running time. Not that it’s overlong – quite the contrary. At 71 minutes, it’s not so much a feature film, more of a proverbial short, sharp shock, a drawing room comedy with teeth. And, like all the guests who turn up to celebrate with Janet, it doesn’t stay a minute longer than it needs to.
Ultimately, none of the characters are especially likeable, but that makes the film even more lip-smackingly funny. Nobody’s moral compass escapes without being twisted and the result is a barbed, vicious film. But it’s also sharply written, disciplined and a savagely good laugh. Wicked, yes, but a laugh nonetheless.
The Party is screened at the London Film Festival on 10th and 11th October, and released in cinemas on 13th October.