Make no mistake, Sally Potter’s latest movie, ‘The Party,’ is a play. It takes the form of a film, obviously, but its screenplay is so saturated with turgid dialogue that it would have been more at home on a stage rather than a screen. Dialogue-heavy screenplays are, as we know, nothing new in cinema: ‘His Girl Friday,’ (Howard Hawks 1940) ‘Twelve Angry Men,’ (Sidney Lumey 1957) ‘Before Sunrise,’ (Richard Linklater 1995) and ‘The Hateful Eight’ (Quentin Tarantino 2015) align themselves as much with theatre as they do with cinema, but what separates them from ‘The Party’ is that their characters are less theatrical than cinematic, in that their speech is believable. In theatre, speech can be unnatural yet effective, whereas in cinema this kind of discourse often appears contrived. Such is the case with Potter’s film: it has its cinematic moments, but inevitably its theatrical pretension restricts it from becoming a movie of true quality.
The film is shot entirely within the house of Jinny (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Bill (Timothy Spall) as they throw a party to celebrate the fact that Jinny has recently been appointed shadow minister for health. She tends to her vol-au-vents while he drinks wine and broods over his records, and no sooner have April (Patricia Clarkson) and Gottfried (Bruno Ganz)—a cynic and an eccentric respectively—arrived than the pressure begins to rise in the bourgeois home. A homosexual couple provide April with plenty of ammo—”You’re a first-class lesbian and a second-rate thinker”—and the coke-sniffing, “wanker banker” Tom (Cillian Murphy) brings a madcap energy that ensures the movie never becomes dull.
For some bizarre reason, Tom has brought a gun to the party, while Bill, for an equally bizarre reason, takes the opportunity to announce to his fellow party-goers that he is terminally ill. Potter examines the consequences of these two actions, and her film would be a fast-paced, intriguing yarn with very few flaws were it not for the sundry lines of dialogue bordering on the histrionic which populate its screenplay. One could argue that April’s pretentious dialogue is intentional, and that Potter’s screenplay ultimately uses melodrama to satirise upper-middle-class ways of living—indeed, she succeeded in pleasing her target audience, as the cinema in which I saw the movie was full of guffaws and chortles from people who evidently saw Potter’s characters as an accurate reflection of reality. However, this dialogue belongs on a stage, and those who can’t recognise that are those who spend more time in theatres than cinemas—that is to say, middle-aged audience members who will find this film a hoot.
If nothing else, Potter’s film is a semi-refreshing exploration of how very little we know about the ones closest to us, yet ultimately it does not so much send up as perpetuate upper-class arrogance. The use of diegetic music is note-perfect, with Bo Diddley, Cole Porter, Ibrahim Ferrer, and John Coltrane punctuating the uncomfortable living-room atmosphere throughout, while the performances are, as one would expect given the cast at hand, wholly impressive. ‘The Party’ is lean—it feels too short at 71 minutes—and has moments of genuine humour and pathos, but it should have been a play. And not even the beguiling black-and-white cinematography of Aleksei Rodionov could turn this one-act play into an entirely credible piece of cinema.
‘The Party’will play at the QFT until November 2.
Director: Sally Potter.
Starring: Timothy Spall, Kistin Scott Thomas, Cillian Murphy, Emily Mortimer.