That director Sally Potter has a playful sense of humour is obvious – she cast an 84-year-old Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I in her 1992 breakout film Orlando, and wrote the script for 2004’s Yes using iambic pentameter – but she’s never really made a comedy. That is, until now. Headed up by the always-formidable Kristin Scott Thomas, The Party is a sharply scripted, sophisticated, energetic film that perfectly suits these turbulent times, as high-flying career politician Janet organises a little get-together to celebrate her promotion to the Shadow Cabinet.
It opens, almost literally, with a bang, as the jittery Janet throws open the front door, shakily wielding a most unladylike accessory – a gun. How has it come to this, in a genteel London enclave? An argument about hard or soft Brexit? A drop in house prices? A deflated soufflé? The film promptly rewinds to reveal – in real time – the secrets and intrigues that threaten to boil over into murder. And like Mike Leigh adapting an Agatha Christie novel, Potter assembles her suspects in the drawing room, none of them exactly who they seem.
Chief among them is Janet’s husband Bill (Timothy Spall), around whom all the guests begin to gather, along with April (Patricia Clarkson), Janet’s best friend, and her husband, Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), who are the first to arrive. Next come the intellectual lesbian couple, Martha and Jinny (Cherry Jones and Emily Mortimer), followed by the sweaty, shifty Tom (Cillian Murphy), a moneyed finance shark who has somehow mislaid his wife – but not his firearm, with which he fiddles out of sight of the others, in between racking out huge lines of cocaine in the bathroom. It’s a strange assortment, but, as the very funny, fast-paced chaos ensues, a farcical logic begins to emerge, as grievances are aired and confessions made.
Initially, Potter’s decision to shoot the film in chilly black and white belies the amount of fun she intends to have with us. Deceptive, too, is Spall’s performance; groggily pinned to his chair, he appears first as some kind of listless bystander, but is all as it seems? It’s a film that constantly surprises: although it dances around with such potentially heavy issues as feminism and “caring” capitalism, this isn’t a political exercise. Instead, although they speak with barbs and witticisms – in April’s case, usually at the same time – Potter wants us to see what these people will actually do and feel, rather than simply say, in times of crisis.
The result is a light and funny film about human frailty, and although it asks some big questions, the smaller teases are what really draw the audience in: what seems, at first, to be a little bit of normal life gradually takes on more and more significance as the story develops. Just who, you might want to ask yourself, is texting Janet…?