Despite its very modest appearance – a single set, seven characters, black and white digital cinematography and, most modest of all, a running time of only seventy-one minutes, extraordinarily short for a theatrical release – The Party is a major disappointment. This is because, modest as it may be, it is the work of some very serious talent, betrayed by a sub-standard script and stumbling direction.
Those seven characters are played, literally, by an all-star cast, and I would dearly love to see them re-unite for a better movie. Kristen Scott Thomas plays a British politician who has just been appointed Shadow Minister for Health; Timothy Spall plays her husband with a secret or two; and Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz, Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer and Cillian Murphy play their party guests. Over the course of an afternoon, as those secrets spill, everyone’s lives get messy.
The writer (with story editor Walter Donohue) and director is Sally Potter, most famous for Orlando (1992), who takes an average of four years between films, and who has taken five since 2012’s Ginger and Rosa. She’s rusty, or disinterested, or complacent, because the script here blatantly needed more work, and the direction is clumsy. Unable to slot into a comedic or dramatic groove, the film skips between the two uncomfortably; it is not an example of balanced tone. Not seeming to know whether they’re in a comedy or a very serious drama, the actors are completely at sea, almost none of the performances gelling, even within two-hander scenes. Spall, Ganz and Clarkson give particularly grating, stilted performances; to their credit, it seems very much to be the fault of the script and the direction, or lack of it. At times Spall seems hamstrung, painfully inert, incapable of making any sort of reasonable acting choice.
It feels very much like Potter is attempting to emulate the work of playwright Harold Pinter, who indeed has a play called The Birthday Party, and whose televised adaptations have the black and white look Potter’s going for here. But Pinter is all about ambiguity, whereas Potter spells it all out, word by over-enunciated word. Clarkson’s character may as well be called ‘Elaine Exposition’, only existing to remind us again and again why we’re all here; until Cherry Jones finally steps on Emily Mortimer’s dialogue, late in the piece, the character’s lines – unwieldy to begin with – are all spoken in isolation (as opposed to overlapping). If that’s a highly deliberate choice, it’s a terrible one. This isn’t even adapted from a play, yet it’s more stagey and ‘theatrical’ than almost any new play you’ll see at the modern theatre. If it was on stage, directed as it is here, it would close in previews. Who could’ve thought seventy-one minutes could be so long?