Kristen Scott Thomas has just been elected Shadow Health Minister and is throwing a little party to celebrate and to show she can also hold high office while making vol au vents.
Meanwhile husband Tim Spall is getting slowly drunk and depressed in the lounge, listening to his vinyl collection, which includes a random selection of Bo Diddley blues, Albert Ayler free jazz and Ernest Ranglin guitar reggae.
The phone keeps ringing and pinging with congratulatory calls and flirty texts. Guests arrive – it’s Particia Clarkson and new-age hippy husband Bruno Ganz, whom she seems to hate. Then come Cherry Jones and Emily Mortimer, a lesbian couple who’ve just heard Em is preggers with IVF triplets.
In bursts Cillian Murphy, a sweating city boy with a coke problem and a gun, apologising that “Marianne” can’t be there yet. We spend the rest of the fraught evening waiting for her, and talking about her.
Director Sally Potter has seen her Pinter and her Beckett – probably directed her share of it too, over the years – and no doubt had a go at some Mike Leigh and Alan Ayckbourn, too. This is a theatrical soiree of a film, a chamber piece, well-performed, zippily timed and shot in black and white to give it, I suppose, a bit of old-school armchair theatre style?
It’s very modern in other aspects, bitterly laced with observations about motherhood, careers, politics, healthcare, ambition, marriage and mortality. Surprises are sprung, long-running resentments aired and secrets revealed as the canapés burn and the relationships unravel. “Everyone’s in disguise,” notes someone.
Good as it is to see some middle-class, north London drama made into cinema, The Party (and of course this means the actual dinner party and the wider political party, i.e. the state we live in) never quite engages the way it needs to. The characters remain sketchy and we don’t warm to any of them. Pity, sympathy, empathy are in short supply even as these fairly dreadful people are stripped emotionally bare, and despite the odd neat phrase – “You’re a first class lesbian but a second class thinker” – it’s not particularly funny or cringe-making. Polanski, for example, did it better in Carnage, and Leigh in Abigail’s Party. Cheese straw, anyone?