The Party (Roadside Attractions, R)

The Party is a well-shot play that doesn’t quite stand on its own two feet as a movie. The script is excellent, but would probably work better on the stage, although even as a theater piece it’s not especially fresh. The setup is the classic “upper-class people at an ill-fated get-together” trope. These bourgeois archetypes find themselves confronted by some type of event or revelation that unveils their true personalities . Kristin Scott Thomas plays Janet, the newly elected shadow Minister for Health for England’s opposition party. She and her husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), who spends the majority of the first act listening to records and staring vacantly, are the hosts of the night’s events— a dinner party celebrating Janet’s long awaited political victory.

First to arrive is April (Patricia Clarkson), Janet’s cynical best friend, and her estranged husband, a bizzarro Werner Herzog named Gottfried (Bruno Ganz). April comes to be the most entertaining character, seeming at first to be the least sympathetic, and then later becoming a hilarious Greek chorus and moral center which defies her acerbic demeanor. She gets all the best lines, as well. Gottfried is the second-best source of entertainment, countering most of his wife’s sharp points with mystical optimism and spiritual, homeopathic approaches to problems ranging from physical to existential. The spectrum is wide and seemingly impossible to tackle in 70 minutes. The run-time does restrict the depth of the issues which we see the dynamic duo of April and Gottfried addressing. But we nevertheless get to see their takes, as some of the most entertaining supporting characters of late, on the hardships of their friends which are loosed by events at the end of the first act, all contained in the twisting dialogue which writer/director Sally Potter revels in.

Other players are Cherry Jones and Emily Mortimer as Martha and Jinny, a lesbian couple who are more-than expecting. Jinny’s surrogate pregnancy comes with extra responsibility that tests the independent Martha, a women’s studies professor and non-committal partner. Last but not least is the manic Tom (Cillian Murphy) who comes with loads of cocaine and a handgun in tow. What he plans to do with the gun is for us to eventually find out.

The initial disruption for the party has to do with Bill’s terminal illness, which he announces to everyone’s surprise. The party’s reactions unwind zanily from there, but the revelations from Bill, biting and blunt since  he is disregarding the social bonds that would matter to a man without an expiration date, are the most consequential. His guests do the rest of the work, letting all of their dubious ways spill in a talky comedy of errors careening towards a major social—and possibly criminal— conundrum.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with The Party, it just doesn’t give you enough. The best form it could take, for me, would be in an intimate theater space. Somewhere small, where the audience sits nears the actors. The dialogue provides a wealth of performance possibilities, but when those performances are quarantined by the distant cinema frame, even as well shot as it is, the effect is muted. | Nic Champion

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