"The Party," a stinging examination of British social values and anxieties, plays like a cynical round of musical chairs. Director and screenwriter Sally Potter whips her splendid cast through a sophisticated dinner soiree, knocking down one worldly character after another with exposures of their personal failings.
Framed in the single space of a posh London residence and running a trim 71 minutes, this chamber piece creates a sense of comic claustrophobia that entraps the characters but ends just before it snares the audience as well.
We are certainly on Potter's mind, drawing us into the dramatic prologue that opens the film. An unseen character — by implication, the viewer — arrives at the home of Kristin Scott Thomas (an Oscar nominee for "The English Patient" and a BAFTA — or British Oscar — nominee for her role as Clementine Churchill in "Darkest Hour"). She welcomes us with furious eyes and a pistol aimed point-blank at our skull.
Before she can pull the trigger, we flash back to the mannerly beginning of the evening. Potter's smoothly roaming camera carries us through the gathering much as an unseen guest might move through the increasingly awkward situation.
Scott Thomas plays Janet, whose progressive ideals have powered her through a successful political career and an upcoming appointment as shadow minister for health. On a personal level, her commitment to keeping everything in good shape is uncertain. While her husband, Bill (Timothy Spall, "Mr. Turner"), is ailing at a rate that deserves attention, she spends a lot of time in other rooms, phoning her unidentified lover.
Early to arrive is Janet's stiletto-tongued political pal April (Patricia Clarkson at full boil). The evening will be her "last supper" with her longtime boyfriend Gottfried (German icon Bruno Ganz, making this character as lovable as he made Hitler loathsome in "Downfall").
Then there's the married couple Martha (Cherry Jones) and Jinny (Emily Mortimer), whose artificial insemination has finally worked. A bit too well, perhaps. Jinny announces that she's carrying triplets.
Also arriving is Tom (Cillian Murphy), a banker whose wife is inexplicably delayed. Tom needs to visit the bathroom repeatedly to self-medicate with nostrils full of white powder, which makes his conversation quiver. His hands also shiver, which makes his decision to carry a pistol into the party shaky indeed.
While the guests champion liberal dogma and pitch New Age methods to improve humanity, these are infighting, comically flawed characters. Everyone is abandoning an inconvenient relationship openly, secretly or shortly. Their views are often absurd. When Jinny learns that Martha had a boyfriend in college, she gasps, "You had a male inside you?" The odds are good that she's carrying a male inside her at the moment, but that's a different matter.
Everyone here is active misinforming others or misleading themselves. Shot in strikingly handsome black and white, this is a wry, jaded look at groupthink and individual folly.