The Party – Sally Potter
Nothing tickles the refined sensibility of Champagne Socialists more than mockery of the attitudes of Champagne Socialists on the blithe assumption that this does not include them. This may explain the otherwise curious 4* review by the ever-Patrician Guardian of this ‘bubble-and-squeak’ movie. Bubble-and-squeak because The Party strikes one as a hastily concocted hotchpotch of perfectly ok ingredients; but re-heated left-overs none-the-less.
It is possible to successfully transfer a theatrical play to film: but rare; usually because of a failure to observe William Goldman’s wise dictum, that the transfer must recognize the profound differences between each medium. One very successful example of this transition was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? However Albee’s piece was a superb play with excoriating dramatic truth at its core: The Party is neither; although this seems to be the kind of tone it aims for.
Everything about The Party looks theatrical; and as a modest one-act play I guess its occasionally witty one-liner ripostes just about counterbalance its frequently shallow didacticism. If in fact The Party was written as a screenplay then it seems to me fundamentally misconceived. To try to bring off such an emotionally complex multi-character ensemble piece, with the occasional satirical political dig, in just over an hour of screen time doesn’t seem to me either brave or innovative – just daft.
Kristin Scott Thomas’s Janet has just been appointed Minister of Health in an apparently Labour Government and this is the reason for the eponymous party. Her supposedly academic husband Bill (Timothy Spall) spends the first 10 minutes of the film staring catatonically into camera as a result of what we come to understand is a sudden personal trauma. Around him their friends gather to celebrate the new Minister: lesbian couple Martha (Cherry Jones) and Jinny (Emily Mortimer) have just heard that they are expecting IVF male triplets - how ironic is that; while a mysteriously tooled-up (with his own personal holster) City-type Tom (Cillian Murphy) arrives sweatily hyped up and immediately rushes to the bathroom to snort some coke. We long for the chilling intensity, or at least convincing stillness of the usually excellent Murphy of Peaky Blinders, but in vain; for lumbered with a daft character, behaving in even dafter ways; Murphy starts OTT and ends up way off any scale of credibility. Laughably mismatched April (Patricia Clarkson) and New-Agey Gottfried (a bemused Bruno Gantz – looking as if he’s wandered on to the wrong set, without a script) appear to be intended to offer a dramatic contrast between unsentimental feminist pragmatism and touchy-feely karma intuitionism. The superb Clarkson actually bleeds some occasional acidic fun out of this slightly farcical coupling but this is far more in the playing than the writing.
The trite plot with a neat but palpably contrived denouement, hinges on the belated but never-seen wife of Tom (Margaret I think – but my mind was wandering at this point) in ways which, despite never seeing her, strike one as inherently implausible. That’s a neat trick: making a character you never see hard to believe in.
The irreducibly theatrical tone of the piece fuels a distinctly stagey acting style which not surprisingly looks false on screen. To have assembled such an accomplished cast with real experience of both stage and screen and give them such cardboard characters to play and frequently dumb things to say, is a culpable waste of talent. The first 20 minutes looks seriously under-rehearsed as each actor struggles to bring some credibility to their character. Just as they begin to make some progress in this, despite the occasional witty lines, Potter either gives them something dumb to say or a contrived plot development that sinks their credibility without trace.
Acting-wise the film ends up like a Marvel action flick: thespian bodies and reputations lie strewn before us: we know not why and care less. Timothy Spall never turned up; Cillian Murphy arrives hyped up, gets hopped up and finally disappears in a cloud of OTT smoke. Just as the often under-rated Emily Mortimer begins to make Jinny seem interesting, plot necessity suddenly turns her into a clichéd, dungareed lesbian stereotype: and a wimp to boot. The usually reliable Kristin Scott Thomas deserves a ‘Party’ campaign medal for a valiant, but doomed effort to make us believe in Janet or to give a stuff what happens to her.
Only the majestic Patricia Clarkson’s April strides through this dramatic shambles unbloodied, unbowed and with some semblance of credibility intact. Like a latter-day Barbara Stanwyck she effortlessly commands attention throughout and delivers some of the best lines of the movie with style and conviction and even gets away with the sillier ones. Just.
The Party is a vaguely diverting, mildly amusing 71 minute one-act play pretending to be something with more substance and insight. If it’s a wet afternoon and there’s no football on the Telly…… otherwise……. that bathroom plug still needs replacing.