Wednesday 11 October 2017

A bit of a do: "The Party"

The Party, Sally Potter's return to fiction filmmaking, is a short, sharp chamber piece (71 minutes, including credits) which gestures - wildly, often amusingly - in the direction of the state-of-the-nation address some of us have spent the best part of the last year looking for. It's organised around - yes - a dinner party, a scenario that satirically inclined filmmakers from Luis Buñuel to Mike Leigh have deployed as a potential festival of embarrassments and humiliations, and it's very quickly and economically established that this one will go off with a louder than usual bang. For one thing, hostess Kristin Scott Thomas, an MP newly selected as Shadow Health Secretary, is going manic in the kitchen, burning the vol-au-vents while fielding calls from a secret lover; her hubby Timothy Spall, meanwhile, lurks gloomily in the lounge, nursing the red wine and a secret of his own. Other arrivals (Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz) appear convivial enough in the main, the one possible exception being "wanker banker" Cillian Murphy, who turns up drenched in coke sweat, and with a gun concealed in his jacket pocket. Suffice to say nobody is going to get fed, and one of The Party's comic and dramatic strengths is how it permits us to feel the collective blood sugar plummeting and irritation rising.

It may, granted, sound as if April's The Sense of an Ending has a rival for the title of Liberal Elite: The Movie, and indeed the entirety of this caprice takes place in Scott Thomas's well-appointed North London bolthole, shuffling the first-world concerns of characters who've never had to scrape to make rent. Yet Potter reveals a sharp eye and ear for her characters' cluelessness. Ganz's holistic cuckoo, burbling beatifically about the superiority of aromatherapy over the "voodoo" of Western medicine, is the obvious comic relief, but even the more grounded Jones lets slip she once did a degree in "gender differentialism and American utopianism", subjects which the director rightly senses might prompt anyone to make their excuses and leave, perhaps even vote Leave. In one front parlour, here is the frippery of the well-to-do, a jostling collection of niche concerns and special interests; set against the essentials of love, sex, birth and death, everything else is what Clarkson, the film's repository of waspish common sense, dismisses as mere dogma, that curse of the modern age. Still, they bang on and on at one another until the tenuous air of civility is shattered along with the hosts' patio door, at which point any solidarity falls apart; you lose track of the number of relationships that get smashed against these walls, or fly out the window.

Potter could just have written enough betrayals for her blue-chip cast to enact, wound these players up, and watched 'em go - it would surely have brought the house down at the Hampstead Theatre, if nothing else. That The Party feels so much richer than the hour-long, single-location doodle it presents as is down to the way she and her performers navigate a succession of electric tonal shifts. They pivot from wry comedy of manners to life-or-death tragedy, pinball via Ray Cooney farce and piquant social commentary: we're encouraged to consider just where the MP's desire to have her vol-au-vents and eat them has left her, alongside Murphy's twitchy portrait of toxic masculinity, a manchild brought up to so keenly believe he's a winner that he simply doesn't know how to react upon learning he's become a cuckold. (Inevitably, he reacts badly.) For Potter, all the isms and other certainties her generation were raised with - the capitalism and socialism, the collectivism and individualism - are now, more than ever, in a state of flux if not outright crisis. As Clarkson barks at Spall during the home stretch: "I seem to remember you called yourself a feminist in the old days." As the punch-drunk latter replies: "Everything's changed."

It's not hard to see what about the sight of once-comfortable, possibly complacent Brits falling into terminal infighting might ring a bell among UK audiences in 2017. (Potter reportedly completed her script during the 2015 general election, but she has a feel for divisions to come.) Among a spread of vividly recognisable archetypes - the helpless, self-defeating opposition figurehead, the smug guru who proves zero help when things start going south - it's Spall, half his previous physical presence but somehow twice the actor, who proves the most compelling invitee: stricken, haggard, compromised, the bruised conscience of Leigh's Secrets & Lies recast and revealed over the course of a single evening as a sorry wreck of a man, left wondering - as we surely all are - "How has it come to this?" Those words would be a better epitaph for this Party than the punchline the film eventually dashes towards, which slightly undermines the seriousness of Potter's project - suggesting that this was never meant as more than a tart, well-sustained joke. Yet in its hectic movement and wild mood swings, The Party goes some considerable way towards capturing the madness and the sickness that has consumed this country over the past eighteen months, and does so far better than any of our pretty-pretty post-Downton exercises in dressing-up.

The Party opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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