What must those modern cinemagoers who cry “SPOILER!” whenever a critic mentions the most innocuous of plot details make of movies like Sunset Boulevard, Citizen Kane or Carlito’s Way, which not only open in media res, but reveal the ultimate fate of their protagonists? I’m forced to admit myself that in the case of the aforementioned Brian de Palma gangster epic, it does seem a little pointless, and sucks much of the tension out of the film’s otherwise expertly crafted climax.
Sally Potter’s latest, The Party, offers a very clever twist on the whole ‘in media res’ device, opening as it does with the reveal that its main character, Kristin Scott Thomas’s Janet, will pull a gun on someone at some point. We see her aiming the weapon at the camera, representing the point of view of her target, and as such we’re kept in the dark as to whom the object of her anger really is.
Like an Agatha Christie drawing room thriller in reverse (not a whodunit but a whogetsit), Janet’s potential victims gather at her London home to celebrate the news that she’s just been made health secretary of an unnamed British political party (*Cough* Labour). Her husband Bill (Timothy Spall) has had a bit too much bubbly and seems to be in a world of his own, losing himself in his collection of jazz records. Lesbian couple Jinny (Emily Mortimer) and Martha (Cherry Jones) are celebrating their own good fortune, having just learned that the former is pregnant with triplets. Cynical American April (Patricia Clarkson) is bickering with her oddball German life coach husband Gottfried (Bruno Ganz). Meanwhile, Irish banker Tom (Cillian Murphy) is sweating profusely with a pistol hidden on his person.
The celebrations are cut short when Bill comes out of his stupor to break the news that he’s been diagnosed with a terminal illness. The initial sympathy soon gives way to bickering as the members of the group argue the merits of western medicine, whether Janet should resign from her political duties to care for her husband, and whether Bill crossed an ethical line by seeing a private doctor rather than availing of the NHS his wife has campaigned so hard to represent. Things take an even darker turn when Bill makes a second announcement.
Shot in stark black and white by Russian cinematographer Aleksei Rodionov, Potter’s film highlights every wrinkle on the increasingly furrowed brows of her players. She’s assembled a cast of the sort of faces that silvery monochrome brings out the best in, and her film’s many close-ups resemble a celebrity photographer’s coffee table book come to life. There’s nothing showy about her direction, but Potter keeps things lively enough to rebuke any fears that her ensemble drama might resemble a filmed play.
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Potter’s dialogue however doesn’t quite exploit the talent she’s assembled, with only Clarkson’s cynic delivering lines you might recall a few hours after the movie ends. The strength of the script lies in its structure, and the minor magic trick Potter pulls in slyly deflecting our attention to deliver a humdinger of a final twist.
At 71 minutes, The Party barely qualifies as a feature film (indeed it’s nine minutes too short to be recognised as such by the Screen Actors’ Guild), and in decades past it may have debuted as a ‘Play for Today’ on UK TV in an era before baking competitions captured the British public’s imagination. Any longer and the lack of substance in Potter’s drama might start to show, but the brevity gives it an anecdotal quality, and it doesn’t make you wait too long for its punchline to knock you out.
3 1/2 Stars Out of 5
Directed by: Sally Potter; Starring: Kristin Scott Thomas, Timothy Spall, Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz, Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy
originally published: 2018-01-23 23:57:49
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