Potter conceived her latest movie as a kind of State of the Nation comedy exploring contemporary politics, particularly Brexit Britain.
She has assembled a fine ensemble cast including Timothy Spall, Kristin Scott Thomas, Patricia Clarkson, Cillian Murphy and Bruno Ganz. But the director has had to work with a micro budget and it shows.
It is set in one location — the ground floor of a London townhouse; it’s in black and white shot from one hand held camera; and it runs in real time — a spritely 70 minutes.
The set-up is a party to celebrate the elevation of Janet (Scott Thomas) to health minister. Each of the characters represents an architype. Janet embodies British democracy, liberalism and the NHS. Her obstinate, vacant husband Bill, who represents a dying Britain, asks “Do you think I have a future?”
Murphy, in another memorably unhinged performance, plays Tom, the “wanker-banker who makes millions out of other people’s misery”. Humour is provided by Ganz’s wonderful turn as “life coach and healer” Gottfried.
While Potter’s ambition was a modern take on Anton Chekhov’s theatrical allegories or Luis Bunuel’s satirical farces, the script is clunky and lacks depth and sophistication. It feels at times to be an uneasy mix between Woody Allen and Harold Pinter. Although the actors give their all, from their performances they each seem to be in different movies.
Potter often uses experimental methods executed with panache. Her breakthrough film was the Virginia Woolf adaptation Orlando — a visually stunning work themed around history and gender fluidity which made a powerful statement on its release in 1992.
In the past Potter has taken political events and used them as key motivators to the characters and plot. So her 2012 movie Ginger and Rosa is set against the 1962 Cuban missile crisis with the characters preoccupied with potential nuclear Armageddon coupled with the possibility of change through protest.
In The Party she is again exploring ideas of integrity, power and change. She asks how we have come to this. But the take-home message is a cry for liberal parliamentary democracy — the cynical pragmatist April ends up telling Janet, “You’re the only one of us who tried to do something really big” and that she must run the country “for all our sakes”.
Yet it is the failures of liberal democracy that are responsible for the political crisis that has resulted in people worldwide seeking radical alternatives both left and right.