I was once taken suddenly ill at a friend's house and, while visiting the bathroom to 'pray' in time-honoured fashion, I hallucinated Bruno Ganz standing behind me, in his calming Wings of Desire garb, making sure I was okay. It was lovely to see him, in the flesh, on stage at the premiere of The Party (UK, 2017).
Sally Potter's new black and white black comedy was shot in two weeks and speeds past, like a Mo Farah Quorn ad, in 71 lean, determined, real-time minutes. As it zips by, the extraordinary cast members (Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz, Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Cillian Murphy and Timothy Spall) deliver crunchy lines of tension and spite as their characters' dilemmas and conflicts are glimpsed and, to a certain extent, explored.
The party in question is a celebration for Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) who has just been promoted to Minister for Health (a poisoned chalice? a political cul-de-sac?) While Janet preps vol-au-vents, fields congratulatory phone calls from allies, and half-heartedly urges her secret off-screen lover to stop calling, her friends arrive: a veritable allegorical parade of the elite bourgeoisie from the fields of politics, finance, and academia.
So we're set up for a Hare/Gray/Leigh/Pinteresque showdown as resentments and revelations seep out and coagulate. No disappointments and no surprises there. There are some good zingers and moments of awkward conflict as the new Minister for Heath's perfect life falls apart due to illness and betrayal.
The first shot of the film is basically Janet pointing, shakily, a loaded gun at the audience (bringing to mind The Great Train Robbery, Spellbound, and GoodFellas), so you know there is going to be a certain Chekhovian trajectory here. En route, the cast do a terrific job of bringing verve to a rather static set up and well-worn routines (the gun, the coke, the sweaty banker, etc.) Clarkson is particularly good and you won't get any sense out of me when it comes to Emily Mortimer, as she's my favourite actress – let's just say I was delighted with her turn and disappointed that she didn't make the premiere.
Some of the stories are left hanging and a few comical notes are played too often to diminishing returns, but the cinematography is remarkable and the diegetic music (via Timothy Spall's beloved vinyl collection, which is actually Sally Potter's beloved vinyl collection) almost becomes a character in its own right.
The last time I saw Spall on screen he was playing J.M.W. Turner, singing along movingly to Henry Purcell; at one point in The Party he is on the floor and possibly dying to the strains of Purcell. Not a bad image at the moment for those 'born to rule' but unable to do so through in-fighting, hubris, and pride.
PS: the temporary Embankment Garden Cinema is extraordinary: 820 seats and (I overheard one of the ushers say) the second-largest screen in London right now.
Up next: Dark River.