Though it’s essentially an intimate one-act chamber drama, writer-director Sally Potter’s The Party never seems like a filmed play. Rather, it captures the qualities of live theater that are rarely transmitted to film, of being immediate, alive, and spontaneous, as if the viewer is just a stone’s throw away from the characters. And part of this immediacy stems from Potter obeying Aristotle’s three classical unities of drama: action, time, and place. The plot is condensed, the timeline linear, and the staging simple.
The film’s action unfolds in real time in a single location. Somewhere in present-day England, Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) is throwing a party at her home to celebrate her appointment as the shadow minister of health in her liberal opposition party. As secrets are revealed and simmering resentments among her guests rise to the surface over the course of the gathering, Potter unfolds her film’s plot with expert precision while shining a light on various taboos and incongruities in contemporary Western liberalism.
The entire cast strikes the right balance between representing boilerplate aspects of liberal ideology and embodying fully realized human beings. Janet has sacrificed her relationship with her husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), to pursue her political career in an effort to put her beliefs into practice. Bill is an erstwhile feminist who has himself sacrificed a sterling academic career to support his wife’s political ambitions, becoming a shadow of himself in the process. Other liberal archetypes include April (Patricia Clarkson), a far-left radical who doesn’t believe in parliamentary politics, and her boyfriend, Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), a New Age life coach who disavows Western medicine and celebrate the virtues of male camaraderie. Gottfried’s outlook makes for some very sharp comedy as he denigrates England’s health care system at a party celebrating Janet’s appointment as its aspiring chief minister.
While everyone is on the same side of the political spectrum, the conflicts that arise over the course of the film are as much ideological as they are personal. Taking the maxim that “the personal is political” to its logical conclusion, the characters’ quarrels with one another are manifestations of minute yet deeply significant political differences. Jinny (Emily Mortimer) and Martha (Cherry Jones), a lesbian couple, argue about the advisability of having children, but what’s really at stake is the superiority of different waves of feminism. Bill’s declining health pits Janet’s rationalist belief in socialized medicine versus Gottfried’s healing practices. Marital disputes reveal underlying tensions between socialists like Bill and capitalists like Tom (Cillian Murphy), as well as between men and women, pointing to anxiety over the #MeToo movement and other forms of social, economic, and ideological splintering on the left and the damage it’s done to the liberal cause.
Perhaps The Party’s bravest choice is to expose these anxieties without offering any comprehensive, optimistic solutions, revealing Potter’s genuine concern over the complex problems that she raises throughout the film. It would be easier to simply support one ideology at the expense of others or to blame such tensions on rival political beliefs. By eloquently and unflinchingly exposing the wounds on the left, Potter encourages viewers to struggle with the questions she raises in the film so as to come up with their own solutions. Rather than the passive lethargy that political cinema often inculcates in viewers by providing them with deceptively simple answers to often extremely nuanced questions, The Party forces its audience to continue grappling with these vital issues long after they’ve left the theater.