Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Movie Review: The Party (2018)


The plot: Politician Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas), after being announced as the new shadow minister for health, is throwing a close-friends party at her house to celebrate. As the guests arrive, from her best friend April (Patricia Clarkson) and her partner Gottfried (Bruno Ganz) to professor Martha (Cherry Jones) and her wife Jinny (Emily Mortimer) as well as Tom (Cillian Murphy), the husband of one of Janet's co-workers, Janet and her husband Bill (Timothy Spall) do their best to try and cope with what will become a very turbulent and potentially fatal get-together.

Thomas does very well as the political idealist at the heart of the story, portraying the character’s want to do good things with the right amount of hope and sobering reality to properly illustrate the complexities involved in such a task. Clarkson as her best friend basically makes the entire film her own, as not only does she get the lion’s share of juicy quotables from the script (“Tickle an aromatherapist and you’ll find a fascist”, “You’re a first-rate lesbian and a second-rate thinker”, among many others) but she delivers them with just the right amount of venom to make her insults sink in. And yet, when she’s called upon to be tender, particularly in her conversations with Thomas, she accomplishes it without it feeling at odds with what's already been said and done. Spall as the waning intellectual deserves major props for working as well as he does with the numerous melodramatic turns the plot takes around him. However, what is genuinely impressive here is that he manages to portray the 'atheist questioning his lack of faith in the face of death' character trope, and do it more justice in just a few minutes than Christian apologetic hacks like Kevin Sorbo could manage in two hours.

Ganz, best known for his portrayal of Hitler in Downfall, puts his efforts towards a decidedly different brand of blindly idiotic and irritating politique as the spiritual healer of the main group. He manages to convey some very real and very annoying attitudes towards modern medicine that definitely comes across for the inanity that it is, but not to the point where it feels like caricature. Having conversed with people like this for myself, I can see some definite reality in this character, to the point where if Clarkson didn’t consistently refute nearly everything he says, I might have grown to hate this movie because of him alone. Again, very real and very annoying. Murphy is given a seemingly-basic role to play, that of a coke-snorting banker, but he puts his all into making it work, utilizing a lot of physical acting and copious amounts of sweat to depict that character and giving us a surprisingly complex personality out of the deal. Jones as the women’s studies professor and Mortimer as her pregnant misandrist partner, when put together, serve as a rather accurate look at the dichotomy of feminism and female sexuality, with their discussions and later arguments along those lines giving a vivid look at the ideals they both hold.

With the narrative structure here being as plain as it is (things go wrong at a domestic get-together) and the run-time being as slim as it is (this clocks in at about 70 minutes), this initially looks like only the latest in a series of smaller films that probably would’ve worked out better on the stage than the screen. However, that quickly subsides once it sets in that the features here that wouldn’t be present in a theatrical production, namely the cinematography and editing, make themselves known. DOP Aleksei Rodionov shows some real mastery of mood and getting into the headspaces of the characters with how he frames this seemingly-minor story. Employing handheld shakiness to accompany equally shaky and uneven emotional outbursts from the characters, he turns the camera into an extension of those characters.

When focused on Janet, it’s claustrophobic and confronted, almost like both her and the camera are trying to hide away from what’s going on around them. When focused on Bill, it starts out stable and still but soon crumbles alongside the certainty of Bill’s own resolve. But by far, the best touches are those connected to Tom, with the literal focus around him in the frame being blurred and employing the most erratic movements of the film. The scenes of him in the bathroom, processing what is going on and silently dreading all of it, are decidedly subtle and shine brightly because of that. And of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up the most obvious visual touch of the film: The black-and-white colour palette. When framing characters whose ideals give them such a figuratively black-and-white view of the world, it’s a tad literal but it still fits.

And that is ultimately what this film is about: The ideals that people hold. Whether it’s sexual politics, gender politics, financial politics, medical politics or just parliamentary politics with Janet’s reason for throwing this party in the first place, this film spends most of its time espousing on where those ideals rub against the reality of a given situation. No punches are pulled in talking about the unhelpful views of the characters, from Gottfried’s pseudoscience to Jinny’s aggressive views towards men, but it never falls into the trap of mocking idealism with even more idealism. It treats these matters with real understanding of their implications and practicality, boiling the more collective notions connected to those mindsets down to the personal impacts they have.

While it’s certainly fun to watch these people take snipes at each other, particularly April’s vicious takedowns of pretty much everyone in earshot, this approach ends up revealing something rather crucial about idealism and personally-invested politics. You know the phrase “can’t see the forest for the trees”? Well, political discourse often runs into the same problem of people’s scopes being too wide to see the real issues. We spend so long debating, refuting and (more times than we end up admitting) attacking the ethos of others, that we don’t stop and think about who actually benefits from such discussions. All of a sudden, debates about health, wealth and romance become less about resolving problems and more just an opportunity to vent everything. I have shown my own fair share of idealism on this blog, and I am definitely a person who believes in the ability to better one’s self and one’s surroundings, but even I admit that it’s not a perfect ideology. There is no perfect ideology, and if we stopped being on the defensive like this and actually looked at the practical side of things and how they affect people, we might benefit from that knowledge.

All in all, this is an incredibly lean and biting piece of political commentary, taking lofty ideas and both exposing the irrationality within and questioning the most important part of ideological thinking: Is this applicable to the real world? The casting is pitch-perfect and the production values definitely justify this even being a film in the first place, but it’s the amazingly sharp writing that wins the day here, taking a level-headed perspective on a series of emphatically emotional issues and pulling it off brilliantly. It’s nice seeing a film that’s short simply because it doesn’t waste time for a change, not just because the filmmakers don’t know how to work with their own ideas for any longer stretch of time.

It ranks higher than I Can Only Imagine, which definitely has its poignancy but ultimately spent too much time not focusing on the legitimate good it had to offer. In numerous ways, The Party doesn’t have time to waste on what isn’t important, meaning that everything shown has its place and purpose. With how sharp the writing is here, that is a very good thing. However, as solid as this is as a piece of sociopolitical clarity, it still doesn’t boast the kind of true cinematic chops of Swinging Safari.

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