We’ve all been to social gatherings that have turned out badly, but probably none quite so disastrous as that portrayed in Sally Potter’s “The Party.” Like the get-together at the home of George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” this one degenerates into acrimony as secrets emerge. But Potter’s dialogue, while it has bite, musters little depth; it’s basically a more acerbic variant of what one might hear in an old Noel Coward play. That doesn’t mean that it’s not funny—the characters’ skewering of one another is acidic and often witty. But since the people reciting the lines are little more than stick figures devoid of shading, one can laugh at them without feeling anything—something one could not say of Albee’s tortured foursome.
They are played, however, by a formidable cast. Chief among them is Kristen Scott Thomas as Janet, a politician who’s just been appointed as Minister of Health—her party affiliation isn’t specified, though her views lean decisively in a liberal direction. To celebrate her success, she is hosting a soiree for a small group of friends. As she putters about the kitchen of their surprisingly modest flat, her husband (and long-time mentor and advisor) Bill (Timothy Spall), an academic, is morosely spinning vinyl discs on his old turntable. He looks terrible—not merely disheveled but at point of collapse.
First to arrive are April (Patricia Clarkson), a professional cynic who gets the best lines, and her docile, smiling boyfriend Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), a life coach she dismisses as a naive fraud. Next up are lesbian couple Martha (Cherry Jones), a faddish professor of gender studies, and her younger partner Jinny (Emily Mortimer), who’s pregnant. Last to arrive is Tom (Cillian Murphy), a rich financier, in hectic mode soon further ginned up with a few snorts of cocaine, who explains that his wife—apparently a celebrity of some sort—has been delayed but will come later.
Soon things start to get out of hand. The first revelation involves a bad medical diagnosis, which is shortly followed by multiple ones involving present infidelity and past indiscretions. A gun is added to the mix, with all the Chekovian connotations that go along with it. Violence is not far off.
The verbal volleys that attend the social deterioration have sharpness and tang. The lines don’t have the ring of human authenticity, but they’re bound to elicit some knowing smiles and the occasional laugh. There’s even a purely musical gag when one character is lying on the floor, very near death it seems, and an obtuse guest puts on one of Bill’s vinyls that has an especially inappropriate selection. (Gottfried, who’s always trying to play a mediating role, suggests a change of records.)
The main targets here are smugly bourgeois values, liberal platitudes and sheer faddishness, and though none of the sting penetrates very deep, it has a degree of punch, especially when the barbed lines are delivered by a cast that savors their every syllable. Clarkson takes pride of place as the perpetually tart-tongued April, but Thomas makes the most of her character’s quick changes of mood, and Jones and Mortimer are fine as a couple running into some unexpected problems.
Among the men Spall assumes such a haggard, despondent pose that you can actually believe he’s at point of permanent disappearance, while Murphy’s frantically slapstick turn fits in surprisingly well in this context. Ganz is especially droll as the film’s voice of reason (or, to be honest, unreason, as April so frequently points out).
High points too for Alexey Rodionov’s agile black-and-white camerawork and the fleet editing by Anders Refn and Emilie Orsini. They, Potter and her expert cast lend a truly cinematic feel to what might otherwise have seemed a little more than a one-act play transferred to celluloid.