The Party review: Sally Potter’s fast and furious farce

The versatile writer-director’s latest is a dark satire exposing the foibles of the British middle classes, and political systems, with barbed dialogue and delicious irony.

☞ The Party screens at the BFI London Film Festival on Tuesday 10 and Wednesday 11 October.

Geoff Andrew
Updated:

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The Party (2017)

However you may feel about individual films she has made, Sally Potter can be counted on for a number of things. First, there is her enduring commitment to a cinema of real intelligence, treating interesting subjects in a properly adult, inquisitive way. Second, there is her fascination with issues related to gender politics, which has never been articulated through obvious, romanticised or over-simplified sloganeering. Third, there is her imaginative, sensitive and highly expressive use of music. And fourth, there is her capacity to surprise; a restless curiosity ensures that her each and every film feels somehow different from its predecessors.

All this is true of her latest, The Party. The title may quite possibly allude to two different meanings of the word, since the gathering in question is at the home of Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas), assembled to celebrate her long-awaited appointment as a minister in the shadow cabinet. A motley group of friends have been invited around, but any upbeat atmosphere – and perhaps there isn’t that much anyway, given the waspishly cynical comments regularly contributed by Janet’s best friend April (Patricia Clarkson) – is soon destroyed when the host’s husband Bill (Timothy Spall), reputedly a sterling supporter of her professional ambitions, makes a sudden announcement that shocks everyone present. Not that his revelation stops them arguing among themselves; indeed, it is merely the first of many in what rapidly becomes a whirlwind vortex of in-fighting, recrimination and revenge.

If, for the first few minutes, some of the bitchy dialogue seems a little arch and Spall’s largely silent, staring, numbed performance appears a tad theatrical, that’s no reason for worry, for Potter is making her first brave and for the most part very successful foray into a kind of dark satirical farce. As you might expect, hers is a comedy of contemporary socio-political manners, but it’s inflected here with a deliciously ironic touch as she probes and examines a range of human foibles. The characters may be recognisable ‘types’ – besides the politician, we have academics, a financier, an aromatherapist and so on – but they are never merely stereotypes, since Potter understands that people often don’t practise what they preach, and even when they do, what they’re preaching may be riddled with absurd contradictions and self-serving illogicalities.

The Party (2017)

Could this be an allegorical portrait of British politics today? That may be pushing a metaphorical reading too far, though Potter has said that, writing the film during the 2015 general election, she wanted to evoke the kind of “chronic insincerity” she saw on display during the campaign. That said, what matters is whether the film’s critical portrait of a certain sector of modern British society succeeds dramatically and comedically; and with a deftly constructed, fast-moving real-time storyline, credibly vivid characters and deliciously barbed exchanges coming thick and fast, it unquestionably does.  

Shooting in a studio over just two weeks, Potter benefitted from a small, well-chosen and excellent cast; in addition to Scott Thomas, Spall and Clarkson, she drew on the expertise of Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy and Bruno Ganz. Likewise, blues, rock, reggae, jazz, tango, Purcell and Paredes (not to mention some judiciously selected classical poetry) are put to wonderfully nuanced and eloquent service, exemplifying the highly detailed precision of Potter’s dramaturgy. If further proof of that were needed, how about a 71-minute running time? It races by without ever leaving us feel in any way short-changed; these days, that in itself is reason for praise.

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