Not every movie about a dinner party goes straight to horror territory, although perhaps we’ve been spoiled with the excellence of Get Out. Most of the time they linger in a place where social niceties bump up against long-simmering resentments between dinner guests (think of 2013’s ensemble picture August: Osage County, or last year’s Beatriz at Dinner, with Salma Hayek and John Lithgow), and that is the space where The Party—one of the woman-directed films we’ve been anticipating over here at Pajiba—lives.
Appreciably short at 71 minutes, starkly shot in black and white, and never expanding the narrative location past the first floor of a well-to-do British home, the black comedy from writer and director Sally Potter (whose 2012 film Ginger & Rosa featured stellar turns from Elle Fanning, Christina Hendricks, and Annette Bening) has a set goal and sticks to it. Friends gather for dinner to celebrate one of their own; friends quickly slide into rudeness, pettiness, and dismissiveness; friends’ motivations are complicated by the appearance of a gun that, once introduced, of course pulls a Chekhov.
This would have worked better as a play, probably, because the setting is so sparse, the performances so compact, and the dialogue so forceful. As a film, The Party is an engaging trifle, but you’ll respect the performances more than you remember the narrative, which takes a particularly disappointing turn in the final few minutes.
The setup is this: Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) is celebrating being named the UK Minister of Health, a position she’s worked toward for years and one which she thinks can enact real change for healthcare and social services. To share her success with friends, she’s throwing a small dinner party, and one by one the guests begin to show up.
First to arrive are best friend April (an exceptional Patricia Clarkson, channeling a less-threatening version of Tammy 1), who says more than once that she’s proud of Janet even though she thinks “democracy is finished,” and her New Age-platitude-spouting boyfriend Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), who April diminishes at every opportunity. Then there’s Martha (Cherry Jones), a professor whose dry calmness is in direct contrast to April’s motor-mouthed sarcasm and cynicism, and her wife, Jinny (Emily Mortimer), who is a few decades younger than Martha. And finally there’s Tom (Cillian Murphy), a quite wealthy “wanker banker” (smirkingly said by April) who shows up with a secret stash of cocaine and a gun. The former he snorts energetically; the latter seems to make him quite uncomfortable. His wife Marianne, Janet’s coworker and protégé of sorts, should be arriving to the party later, he says, but will the shindig even last that long?
The tension is palpable as secrets, one after another, are revealed. Janet’s husband Bill (Timothy Spall) seems paralyzed by depression as he downs glass after glass of red wine and can only dazedly repeat random words Janet says. Is he not nearly as happy with Janet’s government position as everyone else? When Jinny arrives at the party, she drags Martha outside to discuss something in private—what is making her so tense?
And while April is content to judge everyone around her (she rolls her eyes when Janet talks about how supportive Bill is being, and snarks to her best friend, “Remember when I used to be an idealist like you?”), poking at weaknesses as effortlessly as she glides around in her stilettos, she’s ultimately commenting on tensions that already clearly exist. There are cracks in every relationship at that party. Can they survive the evening? And with the appetizers burned and Bill hogging the wine, are they ever going to eat anything?!
The movie moves along briskly from one pleasantly uncomfortable interaction to another, like when Bill nonchalantly reveals something about himself that jeopardizes Janet’s professional reputation and when Jinny spots Tom rummaging around like the cocaine-fueled maniac he is in the trashcan outside, a move that feels very out of place for a celebratory dinner party. And right before you can think, “How much more of these cringe-worthy altercations could I take?” The Party recognizes the limitations of its narrative and chooses to end. At least it doesn’t overstay its welcome, unlike Janet’s initially classy, increasingly fractured guests.