The Party is a theatrical style piece that exposes the hypocrisies, cheating and brutality that lie beneath the facades of a small group of bourgeois liberal friends. We’ve seen it all before, and done better.
The Party is one of those theatrical-style films in which a coterie of characters are assembled in a confined space, and through the imbibing of alcohol or other disinhibitors, their facades are peeled back to expose what lurks within. This inevitably includes a secret or two, the revelation of which has dramatic consequences within the group.
There are so many films of this ilk, they could almost be considered a sub-genre. Twelve Angry Men (1957) is an early example, then there’s the obvious pick, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). But plenty of others spring to mind, including Don’s Party (1976), Death of a Salesman (1985), Polanski’s Carnage (2011), Le Prénom (2012), and most recently the lightweight 2016 Perth Italian Film Festival farce Perfect Strangers.
Many of these films were originally theatre productions (not The Party, though). Indeed, the film medium doesn’t bring a lot to them, except, perhaps, a potential increase in dramatic intensity through cinematic devices such as character close-ups, and accessibility to a wider audience.
Clearly, with a single locale setting and no call for CGI, SFX or virtuoso cinematography, the success of such movies depends on dramatic fundamentals, foremost being characterisation, narrative and performance.
The Party, filmed in black-and-white (this is serious, mum), features a stellar cast that mostly does a fine job, despite some less-than-stellar writing from acclaimed writer/director Sally Potter. One strong tick out of three, then.
Political careerist Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) has invited a small group of close friends to her home to celebrate her appointment as Health Minister. As she prepares for her guests (in between secret phone contact with her lover), her husband Bill (Timothy Spall) sits alone listening to R&B and jazz records, looking so gormless you wonder whether he hasn’t suffered a stroke. His apparent catatonia, sustained for a time even after the guests arrive, is very weird indeed, and doesn’t ring true once we learn that he’s merely preoccupied. It’s hard to avoid concluding that his catatonia is a ploy to add interest to an otherwise rather dull character.
The guests include April (Patricia Clarkson), one of those characters who speaks the truth others dare not. Clarkson has the best and funniest lines in the piece, even if her character is a bit stock, and delivers them with panache and a malevolent glint in her eye. It’s clear that her relationship with her drippy German New Age aromatherapist partner Gottfried (Bruno Ganz) is on the rocks. With Gottfried spouting off one pop-psych cliché after another, it’s implausible they would ever have gotten together in the first place.
Then there’s lesbian academic Martha (Cherry Jones) and her pregnant-with-triplets lover Jinny (Emily Mortimer). The youngest guest, 30-something Tom (Cillian Murphy), looks like a stock broker, is addicted to cocaine and has a concealed gun that might as well have a “Chekhov” tag attached. His wife Marianne, it turns out, is most conspicuous by her absence.
The characters are basically bourgeois liberals set up for Potter to ping at like ducks in a sideshow shooting gallery. Beneath their gentile upper-middle-class facades are hypocrisies, affairs and other deceptions, and the capacity for violence – even murder. The problem here is that the writer’s agenda diminishes the characters, who are not developed to the point of any real complexity. Thus, the peeling back of layers doesn’t amount to anything very surprising – and doesn’t go far enough. Instead, the main game becomes the delivery of a twist at the very end which is not quite the masterstroke you sense Potter thinks it is, and in hindsight, raises more questions of relationship plausibility.
The Party is entertaining enough, but we’ve seen it all before, and done better.
The Party screening dates (2017-18 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival):
UWA Somerville: 1 Jan-7 Jan, 8.00 PM
ECU Joondalup Pines: 9 Jan-14 Jan 2017, 8.00 PM
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