What it's about: Janet [Kristin Scott Thomas] is the newly elected minister for health in the British parliament. Upon the good news, she organizes a small dinner party with her closest friends: her husband Bill [Timothy Spall], the cynical April [Patricia Clarkson] and her free-spirit boyfriend [Bruno Ganz], women's studies professor Martha [Cherry Jones] and her pregnant girlfriend Jinny [Emily Mortimer], cocaine-addled banker Tom [Cillian Murphy] and his wife Maryanne [who will stop by for dessert]. The night of good food and conversation is suddenly halted when Bill makes the announcement that he's dying. This revelation sets off a chain of wild reactions that threatens their relationships and well-being.
Cinematic confession: I've never seen a Sally Potter film. No excuses, just haven't done it. Orlando is regarded as her most important work, her international breakout, a cornerstone of queer cinema, and the film that put Tilda Swinton the on the map. I should make it a priority, especially as The Party was a bit of a let down, at least as an introduction into her work. [Correction: I've apparently seen Potter's 2012 film 'Ginger & Rosa.' Anyway, the point stands.]
The obvious highlights of The Party is the cast and the structure. Every single member of the cast is, if not a screen legend, among the best actors of their generation. And they all do fine work in The Party, even if they could be pushed a little more. Thomas gives the film's best performance in the center of the ensemble; her character certainly has the most emotional stakes over the course of the film. Clarkson is also very good in her groove as cynical and straight-forward. Most of the film's humor comes from Ganz and Murphy in roles that are a little more over-the-top.
The staging of the film works well -- whenever a film limits its time and location, I'm generally interested. The Party is brief and tight, only 71 minutes and it doesn't need to be any longer. It doesn't get as claustrophobic as one-location films tend to get, but the ensemble is uncomfortably interlocked by their close environment. It also thankfully keeps the narrative moving without making excuses for characters being unable to leave, probably the worst cliche in this setup.
Unfortunately, there isn't much pop. The Party is never as irreverent or funny as I think it is trying to be. It wants to make social comments on the high status of its characters. At times, especially in the first half after Bill reveals he is sick, the characters feel less like individuals than intellectual types to have stagy and stagnant arguments about Western medicine and politics.
As the film goes along, though, a second revelation does light a bit of emotional fire, giving the film the spark it very much needed. The actors are able to heighten their performances, the narrative is able to open up, quicken, and get a little wilder. Ultimately, I would have had more fun if it pushed even a little harder, but the fairly boring first half is redeemed well enough.
The very final moments of The Party get the closest to what I wanted -- if film quality is about endings, The Party leaves on a good note. It pays off on mysteries I didn't need answers for in a clever way. The changing character dynamics become more interesting than I realized. That's a tough line to walk, though. If all of The Party's cards were on the table from the beginning, I may have enjoyed the film more thoroughly.