The Party (15)

Three stars

Dir: Sally Potter

With: Patricia Clarkson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Timothy Spall

Runtime: 71 minutes

SALLY Potter’s satire opens with a scene of such wild-eyed, hurricane-haired intensity that one wonders if she has gone too far even before we have started. The British writer and director of Orlando has a reputation as a maverick, but this is the kind of artistic gamble that either sets a picture up to soar, or to come crashing down.

Happily, it is the former, and with a cast that includes Patricia Clarkson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Timothy Spall, Cillian Murphy and Bruno Ganz, how could it not be? Potter’s pictures are known for being small but perfectly formed pieces which boast casts normally seen in bigger budget affairs (Tilda Swinton in Orlando, Steve Buscemi and Judi Dench in Rage, Cate Blanchett, The Man Who Cried), and this one is no exception.

She is a director with whom actors would crawl over broken Baftas to work, but do not let that put you off. Ditto the staginess of the piece, taking place as it does in one house over a single evening. At the risk of sending any remaining readers fleeing for the exits, I should add that the house in question, though it is never spelled out, is probably situated in a middle class ghetto in north London. Oh, and the whole thing is shot in arty black and white.

Yes, The Party is wall to wall luvvie-ness and unashamedly, occasionally gloriously, so. In all the risks that Potter takes in her 71-minute picture, perhaps this is the greatest. She dares the audience to take a chance on material that, especially in Scotland, might have “haud me back” written all over it.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays Janet, who starts the evening throwing together some vol au vents while fielding calls of congratulation on her mobile. Janet has just been made the Shadow Minister for Health, hardly the stuff of Downing Street, but she has worked long and hard for the (Labour) cause and has invited some of her oldest friends around to celebrate. While she is fizzing with expectation, her husband Bill (Timothy Spall) is in the sitting room nursing a large glass of red and a look of despondency.

One by one, the guests turn up for this noughties Abigail’s Party. Meet April and Gottfried, a wisecracking American and her cliche-spouting German boyfriend (Clarkson and Ganz); gay couple Martha and Jinny; and Tom (Murphy), a sharp-suited banker whose wife will be arriving later. The evening looks set to be a fairly tedious affair of smug congratulations-swapping, but have no fear. Within these designer-shabby walls lie secrets, feuds, and one hugely enjoyable skewering of a self-satisfied elite.

Scott Thomas and the rest of the cast handle the farce like the old pros they are, ramping up the silliness with care. Each one of these characters could be a cliche, and it is part of the challenge thrown down to the actors to play up to such notions and go beyond them. Some fare better than others, and a few of the lines land on their backsides. Clarkson, though, is superb throughout. While I would happily watch the Easy A and Shutter Island actress in anything, The Party finds her at her sassy best, stealing all the funniest lines and pulling the strings like some demon puppet mistress. Great fun. One imagines Corbyn’s shadow cabinet hating this. I can think of no higher recommendation.

Another to seek out this week is The Meyerowitz Stories (four stars), a delightfully bittersweet comedy drama new on Netflix (so only on the small screen in Scotland). Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, this tale of a New York family coming to terms with their father’s ageing has another superb cast, headed by Dustin Hoffman as the pater familias and including Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller as his sons. The writer-director of The Squid and the Whale has a laid-back, left field style that may not be to everyone’s taste, but watching Sandler and Stiller sparking off each other is a joy from start to finish. A great, big, wonderful hug of a movie.