Sally Potter’s new 71-minute, single-location, black-and-white satire is the definition of a ‘bottle movie’. Sprinkled with familiar faces such as Kristen Scott Thomas and Timothy Spall, it’s her most commercial film yet. It’s incredibly intelligent and surprising, and will keep you on your toes right to the end.
The Party follows Janet (Kristen Scott Thomas) in the aftermath of her election as shadow health secretary of an unnamed political party. With endless phone calls of congratulations and guests regularly arriving for a celebratory party, she’s got a lot to juggle. Unlike her husband Bill (Timothy Spall), who sits in a chair gazing into space and listening to his endless record collection while she does all the work. Inevitably, as the house fills up with those close enough to merit Janet’s invitation, debates are sparked and secrets are revealed about this group of lifelong friends and partners.
The complexity that each of the seven characters is granted within such a short run time is extraordinary. The audience is allowed in on some of their secrets, such as Tom’s (Cillian Murphy) cocaine usage and Janet’s phone calls from her lover, but other secrets are announced with everyone congregated. Some characters know these revelations, others don’t, often we don’t, and the variety of points of view and levels of knowledge makes for an endlessly engaging experience which miraculously never crosses into confusion.
Potter keeps clarity through the use of the space; the living room is the public space, the kitchen gives some privacy, the bathroom shuts others out and the garden is a release from the claustrophobia of the house. The bodies move in and out and round like a dance, passing and intercepting and eventually colliding. It’s an advantage that the screen has over the stage, where this story could be quite at home otherwise; ‘bottle’ plays are common (think Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or The Ferryman) and while the space can be used flexibly, there’s only one room where the action can take place. On film, Potter is able to delve into the personal moments and encounters in the more private places, which is how we connect to the less loud characters and gain the private insights that keep us hooked.
The Party is undeniably political. Even the title has a double meaning; the gathering which we are observing as it unfolds, and the political party which Janet and many others belong to and work for. Filling her film with politicians and professors, and a hippie (for variety), Potter plays with middle class stereotypes, mocking many aspects of modern attitudes through the multitude of personalities – if one person expresses an opinion, someone else will find a way to argue it. But under Potter’s deft hand, they’re the sort of stereotypes that are recognisable in real life, supported by brilliant performances which add a sense of realism, complexity and shared history.
Overall, Sally Potter pulls off a masterful balancing act with The Party. Its simplicity in its setting and premise allows all the attention to be focused on the characters, and even with seven of them to follow, they’re different and complex enough that you become familiar with them as you watch. It’s the kind of story that would work brilliantly on stage, but I’m glad that the character complexity often associated more with theatre than film is getting its fair share of the big screen.
The Party is in cinemas across the UK now. Image source: Festivaldufilm-dinard.com