The Party movie review: bring your own battle

The Party green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Sally Potter’s brutally snappy take on the classic British drawing-room comedy hauls it into the 21st century with a cutting takedown of the anxieties and hypocrisies of well-off left-wingers.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): love the cast; desperate for stories about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
female director, female screenwriter, female coprotagonist
(learn more about this)

Politician Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas: Darkest Hour, Suite Française) is hosting a small gathering of close friends to celebrate her new job: shadow health minister (sort of like a minority leadership position in American legislatures). It doesn’t go well, to say the least.

It’s been five years since writer-director Sally Potter’s last film — the poignant and powerful teenage girl’s coming-of-age tale Ginger & Rosa — and she is back with a wicked vengeance. The Party is her brisk (71 minutes), brutally snappy take on the classic British drawing-room comedy, and she hauls it right into the 21st century with a cutting takedown of the anxieties and hypocrisies of highly educated, well-off, left-wing Londoners. (They’d be deemed “middle-class” in the UK, but more like “the liberal elite” in the US.)

There are obvious echoes of the political omnishambles of Brexit-era Britain, but The Party is not without applications to Trump-era America, too.

Potter takes full advantage of the dual meaning of party here, as the rapid descent of Janet’s get-together into acrimonious chaos echoes the political omnishambles of Brexit-era Britain (and it’s not without applications to Trump-era America, too). As least on the mainstream-left side of the spectrum, with high-minded ideals tossed away when personal pain encroaches and selfishness swamps all pretense of empathy. It’s not a flattering portrait, but it’s not an inaccurate one: as Janet’s snarky best friend, April (a movie-stealing Patricia Clarkson: Maze Runner: The Death Cure, House of Cards), pegs it, her “opposition party” is “entirely useless” (so: Labour, though that word is never mentioned; also applies to the US Democrats). This may be a laugh-until-you-cry sort of black comedy, but I’ll take whatever laughs I can get at the moment.

Patricia Clarkson’s withering gaze is deadly at 20 yards.
Patricia Clarkson’s withering gaze is deadly at 20 yards.

Potter has convened one of the most remarkable female ensembles of recent vintage, not only some of the most amazing female actors working today — in addition to Thomas and Clarkson, we get Emily Mortimer (Ten Thousand Saints, Hugo) and Cherry Jones (New Year’s Eve, Amelia) — but a range of incredible characters, women who are smart, complicated, frustrating, different from one another, and very, very flawed. (The same goes for the male party guests — played by Timothy Spall [Early Man, Denial], Cillian Murphy [Dunkirk, Free Fire], and Bruno Ganz [The Counsellor, The Reader] — but diversity of male personality and perspective is never surprising onscreen.) A lesser filmmaker might have been tempted to turn them into caricatures as a way to underscore the film’s savage skewering. Instead, Potter — and the terrific cast — imbues them with deep humanity… which of course only serves to make that skewering all the more pointed. Their arguments about money and medicine, guilt and ambition, class and privilege, spirituality and reason are never as black-and-white as Aleksei Rodionov’s beautiful cinematography, and they get at some of the authentic contradictions of trying to be progressive in a world that doesn’t make that easy, and the irony of the privilege that makes fighting for progress for others easier.

Janet and her friends aren’t uniquely awful: they’re very recognizable. The Party may ultimately be a bit of a shaggy-dog story, but it serves up philosophical discomforts that linger.

first viewed during the 61st BFI London Film Festival

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