The Party (2017) (Review)

I knew nothing about The Party. As a matter of fact, it was a last minute addition to my film schedule for the day, if only to pad out the afternoon somewhat. I had not even seen a trailer or poster, only a single still of Timothy Spall when checking the cinema's listings. There's a lot to be said about approaching something as blindly as possible, particularly in the typically marketing-saturated cinematic environment we live in; The Party is a film that truly benefits from that conceit, crafting an endlessly-joyful, consistently-sharp surprise.

The Party concerns itself with a dinner party between friends, hosted by Janet, the new shadow minister of health for the opposition party, which descends into an ensuing comedy of tragic proportions (as the poster so elegantly puts) with each successive revelation and tribulation. The Sally Potter-directed picture stars Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy, Kristin Scott Thomas, Cherry Jones, Timothy Spall, Patricia Clarkson and Bruno Ganza as the eclectic bunch attending a party they will all wish they didn't bother RSVP-ing for.

The Party is a less of a film than it is a brilliant, hypnotic farce. The 71 minute feature-length, shot entirely in black-and-white and contained within one setting, sprawling out over just a few rooms, is totally unique in the cinematic landscape. It takes a singular idea and stretches it into a weighty, meaningful piece (unlike The Death of Stalin, for example), feeling urgent and lively at each unpredictable turn. Potter's sharp, satirical screenplay is chock-full with smart, believable dialogue and the characters that populate it are more than your typical genre staples. Installing a biting sense of urgency allows the film to fly-by in a flash, becoming one of the rare instances this year where you find yourself willing a film to be longer than it actually is. With an enthusiasm and restraint, Potter's screenplay sets the wheels in motion for a black-comedy that a terrific ensemble embrace and go to work on.

Every cast member here is on top form. Impeccably played by all involved, the group dynamics are a constant source of excitement: be it the venomous verbal sparring or an unspoken hostility and subterfuge, there is rarely a dull moment with this effervescent group to keep us entertained. No weak chain to speak of, there are a handful that rise above the rest; Mortimer's steely composure begins to crack as her life comes crumbling down around her, responsible for a good portion of the film's emotion; and Murphy is a triumph as the cocaine-taking, unhinged accountant from the city, losing the plot bit-by-bit. But is is Patricia Clarkson, with masterful aplomb, who shines the brightest as the straight-talking, pot-stirring April. Every acid-tounged line spit at the friends she turns on - in its conception and delivery - is met with hearty belly-laughs from the eager audience, lapping up her retorts and retaliations with gay abandon. She is truly outstanding and I want her to be a guest at every dinner party I attend. When the others can wrestle the limelight away from Clarkson, they excel, with all performers receiving a moment at the centre they revel in.

Both timeless and modern, The Party is so effective because it is always on the money. Amongst the middle-class nightmares, a Brexit-related air hangs over the piece - which would otherwise be a totally depressing thing considering it is all we hear on our news channels at the moment - but it only helps in energising the razor-sharp satire that pervades throughout. Drenched in black and white, Potter's stylistic decisions help enforce a theatrical quality that appears quintessentially British, heightening our enjoyment in The Party. While intrigued to discover how this plays outside the Brexit-land, it is completely effective in tapping in to the time we live in. Contained in one house, without frills and purposely low-scale, these exact scenes could be happening in the house three doors down from you, a large part in the film's charm. There's no need for massive set pieces because the storyline, cast and visuals do more than enough to engage audiences.

Even amid the love and politics musings, the added, hidden poignancy of its messages and the sorry state-of-the-nation captured, there exists a complete hilarity in the whole situation. From inappropriate records scoring key moments to the continuous chiming of a mobile phone (reminding you that life continues outside these four walls), humour is always at the forefront and rarely lost in the farce. An onslaught of witty one-liners - usually from Clarkson's April, I might add - will be the most remembered element of The Party but it's worth nothing that Potter exercises the restriction and control to balance the piece effectively, understanding when enough is enough. While mentioning earlier that the credits seemed to come round too quickly, Potter avoids the age-old saying, 'too much of a good thing...'. Maybe the riotousness would be lost if it became looser with its timing and for that we should appreciate a director keeping on top of their project.

Perhaps one flaw of The Party is that it ends stronger than it begins. The first quarter takes a little too long starting its engine, spluttering out of the starting gate without the grace it ends on. On a couple of occasions it appears to lose sight of some of its characters, thrust back into the foreground when the plot needs a shake-up: that's not a particularly bad thing, just frustrating to witness. I do wish it had a few more minutes to flesh out some ideas as well and it probably won't hurt too much taking it closer to 90 minutes than 60 minutes.

Despite initial trouble to get itself off the ground running, The Party becomes a truly funny satire on love and politics, a calamitous farce that becomes increasingly humorous; far-fetched but still grounded in middle-class reality. A riotous affair, helmed excellently by Sally Potter, provides us with one of the most impressive ensemble performances of the year - although Patricia Clarkson steals the show with her pitch-perfect acidic bite. Clocking in at just 71 minutes, The Party packs in more laughs, satire and poignancy than most would wish, turning its tragicomedy into a roaring success.


Summary: From the riotous to the poignant, Sally Potter's The Party taps into the state-of-the-nation with a smart, sharp comedy populated with hilarious characters and brought to life by a truly fantastic cast. Patricia Clarkson should be at all dinner parties.