The British director Sally Potter—a one-of-a-kind experimental film-maker, choreographer, composer, and actor—has pulled off an improbably timely masterstroke with her latest film, The Party. It’s a deceptively simple parlor comedy, a latter-day Noël Coward farce—but one darkly tainted by the mixture of some way-too-speedy cocaine (which figures in the action from early on) and a pervasive atmosphere of betrayal.

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The film unfolds almost in real time, as its players converge for a celebration in a garden apartment in swanky London. Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas, who, ever since The English Patient, has embodied a certain kind of up-scale-English feminine savoir faire) has just been put in charge of health-care policy for the UK’s opposition party—the culmination of a dogged pursuit of political prominence. While she’s busy fielding congratulatory phone calls and preparing hors d’oeuvres in the kitchen, however, her professor husband, Bill (an outrageously louche Timothy Spall), is parked in a living-room chair with a bottle of red wine, muttering to himself in sarcastic tones that immediately suggest he’s not on board for Janet’s triumphal moment.

Scott Thomas

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The other players quickly fill themselves in. Tom (the boyishly charismatic Cillian Murphy), a striver in the City of London’s shark tank of a financial capital, is destined to be the low man on the totem pole in this den of liberal intellectuals; his wife works in Janet’s political operation and has unaccountably not yet arrived. The flinty character actor Cherry Jones shows up as Martha, echoing her Transparent role as an American academic in gender studies who, this time, is trying to start a family with her younger partner, Jinny (Emily Mortimer). Rounding out the company is Janet’s old friend April, played by a caustically funny Patricia Clark- son, and her German beau—a lounge lizard–y Bruno Ganz as Gottfried, whose platitudinous observations (“Western medicine is voodoo, Bill”) leaven what ensues.

Filmed in luminously creamy black and white by veteran Russian cinematographer Aleksei Rodionov, The Party looks like nothing so much as an X-ray of the zeitgeist that delivers an urgently dire prognosis for the patient. Clarkson especially thrives as something like Potter’s avatar: Her mordant commentary and advice are astute, right up until the shocking final frames. It turns out that most of these characters have something to reveal that irrevocably alters the chemistry between them and provokes some life-changing decisions.

Potter first made a big impression back in 1992 with Orlando, the inventive historical saga that featured Tilda Swinton in an indelible, thoroughly androgynous role; since then, Potter’s films have sometimes borne obvious political agendas. The Party is a departure: a wide-ranging snapshot of our besieged, bewitched, and bewildered cultural moment and a metaphor for the foibles of well-intentioned liberalism facing the chaos of Brexit—and, very close to Janet and Bill’s home, something even worse.

This article originally appears in the February 2018 issue of ELLE.


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