Sally Potter’s ‘The Party’ Is a Collusion of Wit and Betrayal

At 70 minutes in duration, Sally Potter’s “The Party is about the right length for this fun chamber comedy of ill manners. Taking place in the small but tasteful apartment of Janet and her decaying husband Bill, Janet’s friends arrive for what is supposed to a celebration of Janet’s recent government promotion. Instead random revelations of infidelity and threats of murder abound in an environment of academic self-importance and political earnestness.

Kristen Scott Thomas plays Janet as a sincere public servant who prepares the food by herself for her own gathering, greets the guests alone and passionately texts her lover, while her husband Bill (Timothy Spall) sits emotionally and intellectually detached in the living room. His face and neck are unshaven; his jaw hangs unhinged below an unfocused stare into nothingness. He busies himself changing records on his turntable from blues to jazz. Clearly there is something amiss with this living Portrait of Dorian Grey. When Janet’s friend April (Patricia Clarkson) arrives with her older German husband Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), they attempt to discover what is troubling Bill. Bill is hardcore atheist. Gottfried is metaphysical and spiritual. He reaches out to Bill until Bill slowly begins to feel the draw. All the while, April regularly reminds Gottfried of their impending divorce.

Soon the gathering becomes a series of startling revelations. Banker Tom (Cillian Murphy) arrives. Impeccably and expensively dressed, he is very much unlike anyone else at the party. Visibly distraught, Tom quickly excuses himself to go snort cocaine in the bathroom and double check the revolver he has hidden in a shoulder holster under his suit coat.

Jinny (Emily Mortimer) and Martha (Cherry Jones) also drop in and Jinny reveals to a room full of childless couples that she is expecting triplets. Her partner Martha is cold and not sure how to react.

On top of it all, Bill reveals he is sick and does not have much longer to live. Janet’s celebration goes from bad to worse as a string of hard truth is revealed and the guests struggle to respond.

“The Party” is a delightful lark with a skilled ensemble cast. It is not a profound entertainment. There are twists; some predictable but most aren’t. The dialogue can be at times arch, but that is by design. They are almost stereotypical representations of a privileged class of people disillusioned by growing older and disappointed by their life choices. It is not by accident that the youngest participants at this celebration, Emily Mortimer and Cillian Murphy, are the most sympathetic and honest with their emotions. They are the most in conflict with the cruel casual cynicism of their elders.

The ironic exception to Jinny and Tom is Nazi-born Gottfried who is much older than anyone else. He is a constant presence, offering his somewhat incredulous idealism as an alternative to the posturing intellectualism of everyone else.

Sally Potter achieves pretty much what she set out to do. It is fun, surprising and well worth the time it takes to watch it. Anyone expecting more or less will be disappointed.

The Party opens Feb. 16 in select theaters.