British writer/director Sally Potter does not shy away from arch affectation. In 1997’s The Tango Lesson, she stars as Sally Potter, learning the most melodramatic form of dance there is. She wrote 2004’s Yes in iambic pentameter, her main characters named She and He. Potter’s last film, 2012’s Ginger & Rosa, is by far her most grounded, focusing simply on the friendship between two teenage girls during the time of the atom bomb.
But now she’s back to theatricality with The Party, a black-and-white chamber piece that takes place in a London flat. Feeling like it was ripped off the stage, the film features performances that range from natural to ludicrous and developments that, save for the satisfying final twist, become increasingly absurd. But the end doesn’t quite justify the means.
Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) is hosting a soiree to celebrate her appointment as a health minister in Parliament. While she prepares a feast, her husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), is spinning vinyl in the living room, making odd conversation with arriving guests (“I’m Bill. I think. I used to be”), and wearing an expression that can best be described as gobsmacked. We learn that he had put his academic career on hold to support Janet. Still, this isn’t an adequate explanation for him looking stunned surely days after learning her news.
First to arrive is April (Patricia Clarkson) and her New Age-y husband, Gottfried (Bruno Ganz). April, highly bitter, doesn’t say one positive thing the entire time; her favorite words seem to be, “Shut up, Gottfried.” It gets old fast. Then there’s Jinny (Emily Mortimer) and Martha (Cherry Jones), who just learned that they’re expecting triplets and steal a bit of Janet’s thunder. Finally there’s Tom (Cillian Murphy), a banker who arrives unexpectedly without his wife and acts like he just robbed a bank. Indeed, he’s even carrying a gun—along with some coke, which surely won’t help him any.
After Jinny and Martha announce their baby bliss and April then undermines it with a toast to Janet, Bill says that he also has an announcement. He’s “received a diagnosis,” he tells everyone, still with that stunned look on his face. It’s completely unconvincing but they all take him seriously including Janet, who makes a major decision before she has sufficient information. And there’s a second part to his announcement, perhaps an even crueler one that sends wife and guests into true tizzies.
If Spall and Murphy’s turns don’t grate—though they likely will—The Party does have a few witty moments, such as when Gottfried and Tom are trying to find the right record to rouse someone from unconsciousness. Otherwise the film is mostly unearned hysteria and personal and romantic misery. And the dialogue doesn’t always flow: Speaking about Janet, April says, “Oh, don’t worry about her. Looks like a girl, thinks like a man. Androgynous soul always had true grit.” The whole thing smacks of forced conflict with little, not the characters’ behavior nor their conversations, feeling organic. If Potter aimed to further bring herself down to earth, she’s done it in a most artificial way.