The laughs hurt so good, and the guests at this shindig treat each other like dartboards for 71 minutes. Yes, that’s short for a movie, but your nerves couldn’t take more. The Party is the work of Sally Potter, the gifted experimental filmmaker who had a seismic effect on world cinema with Orlando (1992), based on the Virginia Woolf novel and starring Tilda Swinton as an Elizabethan gent who morphs into a woman over the next four centuries. We bring this up only to prepare novices for the fact that Potter, in films diverse as The Tango Lesson (1997) and Ginger & Rosa (2012), plays by no one’s rules but her own.
The Party kicks off with a stunning shot of the magnificent Kristin Scott Thomas as Janet, the agitated hostess; she’s just opened the door of her posh London home and is now brandishing a gun at the unlucky guest who’s knocked. Then it’s flashback time to set up the polite veneer of this festive occasion to celebrate Janet’s recent U.K. appointment as Health Minister. That facade, by the way, exists only so the director can dismantle it with a weaponized wit that takes no prisoners. The dazzling Patricia Clarkson is Janet’s best friend April; she’s also the sharpest shooter when it comes to using words to wound. Is it too early to start talking about next year’s Oscars? We hope not, because Clarkson belongs with the top acting contenders.
Everyone tosses insults around like ping-pong balls. April’s soon-to-be-dumped lover, Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), has no chance to escape censure given his profession as a life coach. “Shut up, Gottfried,” she orders. “Your clichés are unbearable.” April is equally tough on the hypocrisies she finds in radical feminist Martha (the superb Cherry Jones) and her partner, Jinny (Emily Mortimer), who’s about to have triplets. “You’re a “a first-rate lesbian,” April tells Martha, “but a second-rate thinker.” Ouch! Cillian Murphy is a manic wonder as Tom, a master of the financial universe married to a guest who hasn’t yet arrived. He ducks April’s verbal bullets mostly because he hides out in bathroom doing lines of blow while deciding what to do with the gun he’s brought to the party.
Quietly taking center stage is Janet’s husband Bill, played by a brilliant Timothy Spall as a timebomb ready to explode. For the film’s first third, he just sits in his chair listening to music and looking shellshocked, having sacrificed his academic career so his wife could rise in politics. Then Bill starts issuing revelations too juicy to spoil. Let’s just say that sex, drugs, infidelity and attempted murder all figure in the plot.
Shot in striking black-and-white by Alexey Rodionov, The Party ducks and weaves around Janet’s home looking to catch a character in an unguarded moment. Potter lets the air out of middle-class liberal elitism while refusing to use her characters as sign holders for her own beliefs. This is a movie about conversation, the kind that cuts deep. Potter’s movie may be too small to leave a substantial legacy. But you can’t take your eyes off it, and the filmmaker and her cast serve up hilarious verbal fireworks that unexpectedly and indelibly knock the wind out of you.