A tart black comedy of bad behavior among the British boho-bourgeoisie, “The Party” is a surprisingly slight offering coming from Sally Potter, the risk-taking director still best known for 1992’s Virginia Woolf adaptation “Orlando,” with Tilda Swinton. The new film is a lightly poisoned amuse-bouche that’s made with tasty high-end ingredients, but at 71 minutes it leaves you hungry for more.
But, oh, that cast: Kristin Scott Thomas as Janet, a longtime liberal politician who, as the film opens, is gearing up for a dinner party to celebrate being appointed the new government’s Minister of Health. Timothy Spall (“Mr. Turner”), as her husband, Bill, an academic and an author with more than a bit of bad news to share this evening. Patricia Clarkson (“The Station Agent”) as Janet’s bitchy best friend April, a one-time idealist turned bitingly cynical, and — joy — the great German actor Bruno Ganz (“Wings of Desire”) as April’s blissed-out New Age boyfriend.
Cherry Jones is Bill’s college chum Martha, a storied gay activist, and Emily Mortimer is Jinny, her young and very pregnant wife. The other side of the sociopolitical aisle is represented by Tom (Cillian Murphy, most recently of “Dunkirk”), a coke-snorting, highly amped financial wolf married to Janet’s assistant Marianne who, for reasons unclear, has yet to show up.
All of these people are glittering on the outside and rancid at the core; all have awful little secrets and one of them has a gun. Will Potter observe Chekhov’s rule that a firearm introduced in the first act had better go off in the second? That’s one of the few notes of genuine suspense.
“The Party” has been shot (by Aleksei Rodionov) in lustrous black and white in cramped quarters: living room, bathroom, kitchen, backyard. Comparisons to Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — and Mike Nichols’s 1966 film of same — seem unavoidable, especially since nearly every one of the characters will have turned on all of the others before the end credits roll. (The exception is Ganz’s Gottfried, who’s either an idiot or a holy man.)
“The Party” is very, very British, though, and for Potter, who wrote the screenplay, it offers a chance to skewer the hypocrisies of the comfortable left, not to mention introduce a little chaos and entropy into these smug lives. The dialogue is razor-sharp, especially when Clarkson’s April is doing the slicing. (To Jones’s Martha: “You’re a first-class lesbian and a second-class thinker.” To her friend Janet: “If you’re going to run this country, you’re going to have to do somethimg about your hair.” To the world at large: “I expect the worst of everyone in the name of realism.”)
Points, too, for the odd but telling soundtrack choices as various characters commandeer Bill’s living room turntable. Points for everything, in fact, except a larger point — there doesn’t seem to be one. Potter has assembled all the makings of an acid-bath of a social satire but somehow avoids the killing blow. Maybe it’s the truncated length: Just as it seems poised to kick into high gear, “The Party”’s over.
Written and directed by Sally Potter. Starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Patricia Clarkson, Timothy Spall, Bruno Ganz, Cherry Jones, Cillian Murphy, Emily Mortimer. At Kendall Square, West Newton. 71 minutes. R (language and drug use).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.