Sally Potter’s “The Party” introduces us to the left-liberal British political elite. Not a bad idea – if only history hadn’t intervened while the film was being made, finds Phil Butland
There is much to like in Sally Potter’s new film “The Party”. The monochrome film is beautiful, the top-ranking actors are astounding and the dialogue is witty and acerbic. And socialists can only share the director’s intentions.
According to Potter “I did start writing this just before the last general election in the UK [in 2005], at a point where it seemed that the left in the UK was very much losing its ability to be sincerely brave about its policies and was trying to disguise itself as something very centrist, so that left and right were almost indistinguishable.”
Aromatherapy and red wine
Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a British MP. Her party is unnamed, but given her support for the National Health Service, we can rule out the Conservatives. When Janet is appointed Shadow Health Minister, she throws a party for her closest circle of friends.
Present are Janet’s longtime friend April (Patricia Clarkson), April’s aromatherapist partner Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), and Martha, a professor of gender studies (Cherry Jones), whom April calls a “first rate lesbian but second rate thinker”. Martha is accompanied by her pregnant partner Jinny (Emily Mortimer) and then there is Tom (Cillian Murphy), a banker waiting for his delayed wife to appear.
In the middle of the room sits Janet’s husband Bill (Timothy Spall), a disillusioned academic who has a few secrets to tell. Bill binge drinks red wine while playing music from his old record player. Spall’s world-weary face shows a man – and a political class – whose time is over.
The guests are part of the elite group which took over the leadership of the Labour Party under Tony Blair. They are well-meaning, and worry about capitalism, feminism and the crisis of the health system. But ultimately, they are trapped in their bubble and are more moved by their own personal failures and infidelities than by the living conditions of people outside their privileged circle.
The gun on the wall
After “The Party” premiered at this year’s Berlinale, it was often compared with Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” – a comparison that I find justified, but not always in the complimentary manner in which it was meant. “Carnage” is also an impressive film, although you could never really get rid of the feeling that it wasn’t living up to the original stage version.
“The Party” was never a play, although it adopts many theatrical conventions (not least Anton Chekhov’s dictum that if there is a gun on the wall, it will be fired before the end of the play). Yet for a film that is addressing current politics, such theatricality is not unproblematic. Such mannered theatre often operates better as a sounding board for discussing bourgeois dilemmas than addressing the devastation caused by neoliberalism.
Other British film makers have also addressed the country’s political crisis. Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake” is a crushing indictment of the impact of nearly 40 years of Thatcher-Blairism on the lives of ordinary people. While no-one is asking Potter to remake “I, Daniel Blake”, in comparison to the emotional impact of Loach’s film, it is quite difficult to arouse the necessary feelings for her pitiful neurotics.
Overtaken from the Left
There is much to like in “The Party”, but not so much to enjoy. It reeks of good intentions. All the necessary villains – from the coke-addled banker to the superficial life counsellor – are present and correct, and are mercilessly subjected to ridicule. Nonetheless its hard to avoid the feeling that such stereotypes are much less relevant now than at the time of the 2015 election, or even during the Berlinale premiere just a few months ago.
Potter has no sympathy for her characters, but neither does she offer us an alternative. In this sense, “the Party” is slightly out-of-date even on release. In Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, well-meaning academics have lost the influence that they had 2 years ago, when Potter first conceived the film. Quite the reverse – their inability to understand the meaning of Brexit and their belief that they alone hold progressive values has meant that British society has overtaken them from the left.
“The Party” is a film about, and to a significant degree for the liberal middle classes. Fortunately, other, more relevant political actors have taken the stage of British politics. As an activist, Potter will be pleased by this development. It has, however, the unfortunate side-effect that her “state of the nation” film already seems to be represent a different country in an era that is already over.