Devious, hilarious and insightful, The Party tears into the contemporary British intelligentsia

The utter haplessness of the political left is one of today’s great unsolved mysteries, with legions of pundits wondering what happened to the idealism of the 1960s generation. A baby boomer herself, acclaimed British director Sally Potter certainly offers an answer in her latest film The Party, a tight, 71-minute allegory dripping with panache. Filmed in London during the Brexit vote, it’s a case study on well-meaning champagne socialists, increasingly detached from reality.

When a small group of friends get together to celebrate Janet’s (Kristen Scott Thomas) appointment as shadow minister for health in an unnamed opposition party, what was supposed to be a civilized gathering of old friends quickly devolves when Janet’s supportive husband Bill (Timothy Spall) announces he’s terminally ill – but so fed up with being neglected by his careerist wife that he’s leaving her for one of his grad students for his last few months on this earth. Shock turns to tears and screamed admonishments as most of the group was in on this. The genteel veneer comes off as long-kept secrets are exposed, eventually ending in violence.

Shot in black-and-white, The Party has a strong theatrical feel, needing only three rooms and a garden, and a small but eminently accomplished cast: Standouts are Janet’s cynical best friend, April (an amazing Patricia Clarkson) who, desperate to mask her sensitivity, spews vitriol at anyone in range; and Tom (Cillian Murphy) the wronged husband, a City banker type so shaken that he can only cope by copious trips to the lavatory to snort coke.

Secrets and Lies

Exposing the hypocrisies of the bourgeoisie has a long history, but Potter offers a different take: Her characters are all painfully aware of their own inconsistencies, neurotically twisting to avoid them – and ultimately failing. All too often, their enlightened attitudes mask smugness, snobbery and condescension – and cannot survive grim reality. When Janet is first confronted with Bill’s infidelity, she instinctively slaps him – then apologizes, deeply shaken. After all, that is just not her; she has preached her entire life that violence is not the answer, that peace and reconciliation are the way forward – then she compulsively slaps him again, harder. Bill seems more confused than despairing in the face of his terminal diagnosis – a lifelong rational atheist, he’s perturbed by his own turn to spirituality.

Death is one thing, but philosophical cowardice – intolerable!

Ironically, the only one immune to navel-gazing is Gottfried (Swiss acting legend Bruno Ganz), an aged German hippy and self-proclaimed “life coach and healer.” Speaking exclusively in platitudes, he endlessly spouts useless advice and empty clichés; yet he alone at the party is utterly comfortable in his skin, with no inner conflicts or secrets. He may be a buffoon, but he’s no phoney.

Let England Shake

Then again, no one is, really – they just can’t let anything go. Seconds after revealing his condition, Bill is called out for going to a private doctor and undermining his wife’s stance on the NHS. April calls Gottfried a “Nazi” for adhering to his alternative medicine dogmas and is immediately admonished by another for “holding the second generation responsible for the crimes of National Socialism.” While they resolve their ideological dispute, none of them even considers consoling the dying man. Everyone is so conditioned by a lifetime of social crusading that they’re like racehorses with blinkers: the second they hear their hot-button topic, off they go – irrespective of whether their grandstanding is helpful or appropriate. Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic would be putting it lightly.

Yet this is the very thing that makes the characters human. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, The Party could have easily become a mean-spirited farce full of canapé-scarfing left-wing loonies. Instead, it’s a caustic chamber piece of incisive insights – but with a certain affection for their affectations. And a surprise twist ending that makes it all the more worthwhile.

Starts Jul 28, Filmcasino