Sally Potter and the Half-Blooded Script
Movie Review – The Party
Directed by Sally Potter
Starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Patricia Clarkson, Timothy Spall, and Cherry Jones
So imagine there’s this tiny office somewhere. And a young man in jeans and a business casual jacket is pitching a small independent film. “We’ll pack this sucker with the kind of credentials that’ll make the art house crowd swoon” he says, “First, we’ll make it British. British independent films are soooo it right now. Then we’ll get Sally Potter, creator of one of the quintessential art house movies of all time, 1992’s gender-bending adaptation of Virginia Woolfe’s Orlando, to write and direct. We’ll hire 90s indie darling Kristin Scott Thomas and Oscar-nominee Patricia Clarkson – you know, that talky old broad from countless indie classics like The Station Agent and Pieces of April. And we’ll get two-time Tony winner and lesbian icon Cherry Jones to bring in the LGBT Crowd. For good measure, we’ll add esteemed Swiss Actor Bruno Ganz and British stalwart Timothy Spall. Then we’ll throw ‘em all into a single house and the whole movie will take place in one evening, Albee-style. For good measure, we’ll throw in some dialogue about political idealism and death, some black comedy, some sexual farce, and best of all, we’ll photograph the whole damn thing in black and white, so everyone will know it’s an art movie!”
Obviously, that’s not how this film, or any film for that matter, came about. In fact, The Party has the feel of a Sally Potter home movie, a sort of “let’s have a party and make a movie out of it” vibe. (You can imagine the director assembling her friends and shooting the movie over a weekend, in her own living room.) Still there’s no denying Potter’s British import seems like a pu-pu platter of goodies designed to whet the appetites of the art house crowd. Hopefully that crowd will have stocked up at the snack bar because this Party serves up little nourishment as a drama, comic entertainment, or a work of art. Under-developed, under-directed, and under-played, The Party is a tantalizing appetizer that leaves you hungry for something more.
A successful career woman, Janet (Scott Thomas) is an idealist with a political cause. Newly hired as a “Shadow Health Minister” for a major British political party, she decides to celebrate by throwing a small get-together with her husband Bill (Spall); Her sassy best friend, the self-proclaimed realist, April (Clarkson); April’s date, an odd German man (Ganz) whose brush with death has transformed him from realist to spiritual healer; Martha, an older lesbian college professor (Jones) and her partner, the popular young chef Jinny (Emily Mortimer); and finally, Tom (Cillian Murphy) the mysterious, coke-addled young husband of the unseen Marianne, who’s late for the party.
As Janet prepares food for her guests, Bill gets drunk on wine and jams to Rhythm and Blues records as the guests arrive. Soon he confesses the reason for his morose behavior to the unsuspecting ensemble. He’s terminally ill. As expected, the news disrupts the simple soirée and sets in motion a series of revelations, both comic and dramatic, that touch on any number of themes without developing any of them in a satisfying way. The Party hints at these larger ideas in a few scattered conversations throughout the film. Brief dialogues about idealism vs realism and hope vs. nihilism, peppered with the usual Potter feminism, merely scratch the surface and seem only superficially connected to the story. If Potter is trying to make some statement about the relationship of ideology to passion and relationships, it isn’t clear. Instead, what we’re left with is a series of silly, if amusing, revelations, some passable black humor and a director who sometimes seems unaware of the content of her own movie. And Potter under-plays many of her best moments, limiting their impact with poor timing and uninspired staging.
While the film is not without entertainment value, it’s such a fleeting trifle that it hardly registers. Potter rushes things along so fast they don’t have time to resonate. It’s almost as if the film were missing a first act. The Party is one of those rare movies that could actually benefit from being longer. Though its romantic entanglements are clever and lead to a surprising and mildly funny conclusion, another 30 minutes of well thought out dialogue and character development might have provided some much-needed meat to the film.
The Party is all about the ensemble and the one we’re given works well within the film’s narrowly established range. Scott Thomas, an always likeable lead, comes off best. There’s something inherently relatable to her. But her best moments only take up a fraction of screen time and beyond that we’re left to deal with a rather stereotypical lot. April is standard Clarkson fare, the kind of part the actress could play in her sleep. You can almost imagine a script note for the character that reads, “Patty does her thing.” Jones, while quite good as the middle-aged Martha, is wasted in a nothing sub-plot about a pregnancy. Spall, resembling a bad mug shot, is more depressing than funny as the hopeless and besotted Bill. While Ganz and Murphy, as the quirky-men-out, are mostly annoying. And there’s barely time to get to know any of them with any depth.
Potter, herself a cinematographer, is a director with a strong visual sense who can be weak on content. The emotional impact of her films often stems from their technique rather than content or character. But her films do look great. (Witness the sumptuous production values and hypnotic tone of the ethereal fantasy, Orlando). The black and white images of The Party cinematographer Aleksei Rodionov, who also photographed Orlando, are certainly handsome. But the decision to shoot the film in this format, whether financial or aesthetic, doesn’t quite work. There is no contextual need for the harsh paradoxes of black and white, no noir narrative that necessitates the contrast between light and dark to illustrate the good and evil lurking in its character’s hearts. Instead it creates a sort of visual mask that distracts from the story and the humor. Maybe its’s meant to accentuate the darkness of the humor – a sort of cocktail noir if you will, but it’s unnecessary. Black humor works best with an ironic tone.
The Party seems to have generated little excitement at the box-office, at least in local art houses. After less than a week in one KC area theater, its evening showings were cancelled for once-a-day runs of the still-lingering The Shape of Water. Maybe the few people who saw the film could talk to that hypothetical young man pitching his indie movie and remind him that what art house audiences really want isn’t credentials, but good movies, smartly directed, with interesting characters, and unique, out-of-the-mainstream stories based on full-blooded scripts that make us think and feel.