Written and Directed by Sally Potter
One of the most awesome things about movies is the variety of stories that can be told through the medium. Small indies, big studio blockbusters, romance, comedy, war, western, etc., etc. The list could literally go on. But even the same people can make different types of movies telling different types of stories. Take The Party for instance. This cast is great! Kristin Scott Thomas, Timothy Spall, Cillian Murphy, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz, and Cherry Jones. Put this cast together and I’m not sure there is a limit to the movie they could make together. And yet, for The Party, they come together to make an underwhelming parlor drama which fails to connect its character at any depth to make a meaningful tale.
Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) has just been promoted to Minister of Health, and is hosting a party with some close friends along with her vacant husband Bill (Timothy Spall). As the guests slowly arrive, we get to find out that best friend April (Patricia Clarkson) is planning in breaking up with her boyfriend, the eccentric German Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), and that Jinny (Emily Mortimer) is expecting with partner Martha (Cherry Jones). When Tom (Cillian Murphy) appears without his wife Marianne, we find out he has evil intentions as he snorts coke in the bathroom contemplating what to do with the gun he has brought to the party. And then, of course, Bill drops a bombshell on the party guests.
The parlor drama sub-genre is an interesting one, and often revolves around a small, stellar cast performing within a confined space and featuring interesting relationship dynamics between the characters. The Party is no different in this regard, as each character comes to celebrate Janet’s tremendous professional achievement with their own baggage, including the hosts Bill and Janet. The problem with this particular rendition of the stage play on screen is that all of the characters are caricatures instead, with no depth of feeling, background or story. Potter throws these characters together into a room and hopes for the best, without having dug any deeper into their psyches to help explain why the twists and turns are twisting and turning.
The film is smartly constructed in terms of what each character brings to the table, and is generally well-acted (more on this in a minute), but the idea is not fully fleshed out and could have benefited greatly from a little more time in this setting, as we are given the very brief 71 minute treatment of the tale of 7 different characters, which as it turns out is not nearly long enough to fully appreciate their joys, sorrows and displeasures with each other. The tone of performance here varies, as The Party is mostly conducted as a comedy that features some dramatic story elements. Timothy Spall excels as the vacant host Bill with much on his mind, while Patricia Clarkson gives a forceful, over the top performance for which I didn’t care. Other are slightly more subdued, like Emily Mortimer and Cherry Jones, while Bruno Ganz is hamming it up and Cillian Murphy seems to be about the only one giving a fully conflicted dramatic turn.
The film is caught somewhere in between being a taut, razor sharp short, and a well imagined, fully realized feature, and what a shame given the potential of both story and cast. In some ways, The Party turns out to be the type of dish which features great, fresh, delicious ingredients, yet fails to impress as an entree. There is something in the spices, or the way the ingredients go together that doesn’t quite coalesce. I wish Sally Potter would have taken a little more care to flesh out her characters, or expand the setting some to do so. I can appreciate a parlor drama as much as the next guy, but in The Party there just isn’t enough for me to grasp onto, to root for. Let’s look at the bright side, it could have been an even longer disappointing movie. At just 71 minutes, I feel as though I hardly even wasted my time.