‘A little party never killed nobody’, or so goes the song. In Sally Potter’s biting new film, it’s an adage that is proved utterly, utterly wrong, as seven people tear each other’s lives apart in one evening meant to be a celebration. The Party is familiar in as far as we’ve seen the useless hypocrisy of the upper middle class on film plenty of times before, but rarely does it prove so swiftly disastrous, starting out as a classy dinner and drinks, descending into divorces, fistfights, and even a gun being pulled in the space of just 71 short minutes.
This minuscule runtime is key to The Party’s success. Alone, this characters are decent enough people, but together they add up to a waking nightmare, and to spend too long in their company would equal frustration and exhaustion. There’s the hostess Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas), a successful career politician (the only times the word ‘party’ is uttered in the film is in this context) who is cheating on her catatonically disconnected husband Bill (Timothy Spall). Into this mix walks Janet’s best friend April (Patricia Clarkson) and her insufferable German boyfriend Gottfried (Bruno Ganz) and unhappy lesbian couple Martha and Jinny (Cherry Jones and Emily Mortimer).
It’s obviously a powder keg, but things are kept at the mere bickering level until the true wildcard of the evening, coked-up banker Tom (Cillian Murphy) arrives, sporting drugs and a pistol. The casting is impeccable, everyone a perfect fit for their part. Ganz is a particularly inspired choice, his hippy-dippy nonsense character bringing people together, and it’s very funny to see the former Hitler as a force for peace in a rich Londoner squabble. Characters are rather archetypal, they have to be in a film this short, but the actors provide additional depths to what might otherwise be ciphers.
Potter’s shots at the self-satisfied white bourgeoisie are hardly original, and the dreadful vapid ideologies of the guests come across as overly broad, but the shifting alliances at the party keep you guessing and entertained. By the film’s end, your sympathies won’t lie where you expected them to at the start, nor even where you think they should lie. It’s an impressive trick, and Potter tells a huge amount of story in every scene, but this density comes at the expense of The Party’s more comedic ambitions.
Though the satire is prickly, it rarely raises the humour to laugh out loud levels. By far the best gags come from Cillian Murphy’s performance as Tom, part pratfalling and pathetic, part vicious and dangerous. Out of his mind on cocaine, and arriving at the party with a mysterious agenda hinted at by the absence of his wife (to whom their joint invitation was really addressed), he keeps everyone on their toes, on screen and in the audience. As the farcical event drags on into the evening, the black and white cinematography takes on a new importance, shrouding some details and lending others an almost operatic importance.
Every grand pronouncement is interrupted by someone else making their own statement or simply skewering the speaker’s point of view, and anyone who’s been to a slightly uncomfortable gathering will recognise the signs of the event’s collapse as they build up to a catastrophic crescendo. More proper laughs amongst the constant revelations would have been welcome, but the hour and ten minutes zips by nicely, with a barnstormer of a final joke.