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This image shows Patricia Clarkson, left, and Kristin Scott Thomas in a scene from 'The Party.' [Roadside Attractions]

Movie review: ‘The Party’ packs a punch

There are no canapes or hors d’oeuvres, but there’s a lot of punch at “The Party.” And just about everyone in attendance leaves Sally Potter’s acerbic soirée battered and bloody — if not dead. Even better, all this black and blue is delivered in glorious black and white by a septet of splendid actors spewing deliciously venomous discourse rendering you dazzlingly dizzied.

Even if you’re afraid of Virginia Woolf you’ll drink in this volatile cocktail bash fueled by hateful verbiage and insult. That it’s all served nonstop in the space of 70 often dark but mirthful minutes only adds to its intoxicating nature, as Potter favors us with biting conversation that subtly veers toward social and political issues facing post-Brexit England.

Serving as our hosts are Kristin Scott Thomas and Timothy Spall as Janet and Bill, clueless London aristocrats whose longtime marriage is beginning to crack. On the surface, they’re the poster couple for progressivism: He a distinguished university professor and she a career activist for feminism, a quest that’s just culminated in her being named the opposition party’s minister of health. To celebrate the first major step toward her goal of becoming prime minister, Janet is throwing herself a small dinner party for her closest friends: Professional cynic April (Patricia Clarkson) and her holistic-healer German boyfriend, Gottfried (Bruno Ganz); Bill’s colleague, Martha (Cherry Jones); her much younger and pregnant wife, Jinny (Emily Mortimer); and Tom (Cillian Murphy), a Prada-wearing broker April fondly labels a “wanker banker.”

Instead of his “beautiful” wife, Marianne (she’s expected later), Tom arrives accompanied by a concealed weapon, presumably the same revolver we see in the movie’s opening scene, when an enraged, disheveled Janet is taking aim at an unseen visitor on her doorstep. The rest of the story is a flashback to how Janet came to that pivotal moment. It’s a trek that will reveal long-held secrets, messy romantic entanglements and multiple betrayals.

Potter believes in the slow build and executes it well, although she at times goes against her best instincts by stretching credulity. She also allows the production to become stagy at times, which is understandable since it unfolds like a one-act play. But the real-time format keeps everything moving swiftly right up to the somewhat shocking last-minute reveal.

Like all the best trips, the joy is in the getting there, and Potter’s sly, dripping-in-sarcasm dialogue ensures a consistently fun ride. Yet, it’s what her characters don’t say that’s most impressive, as she and director of photography Aleksei Rodionov refreshingly show instead of tell in depicting the motivations of characters defined more by what they do than what they say. Bits like the coy smile on Janet’s face when she answers a cell call from a lover who is most definitely not her husband. Or, the flop sweats on Tom’s brow, as he frets over whether to fire his pistol at a perceived threat to his dignity. There are dozens of similar knowing details throughout. But it’s the star power of Potter’s ensemble that holds your gaze.

Of the seven, it’s Clarkson drawing the showiest role, making sharp work of every lacerating bon mot melodiously flowing off her tongue. Like when she boldly labels Martha — to her face — “a first-class lesbian and a second-rate thinker.” But her best digs are reserved for Ganz’ Gottfried and his annoying habit of speaking in new-age bromides, quipping at one point “tickle an aromatherapist and you’ll find a fascist.” And the clever zingers seldom abate. Nor is anything off limits, as Potter hilariously satirizes leftist views on marriage, academia, religion and especially the shortcomings of the U.K.’s underfunded, less-than-comprehensive National Health Service.

It’s a one-joke pony that stingingly takes overdue, but good-natured, shots at liberals for their know-it-all sanctimony, and their underlying hypocrisy. But Potter gets a surprising amount of mileage out of it before it stretches too thin in the final 10 minutes when the “revelers” divide up into groups to lick their wounds and declare their self-righteousness.

No doubt the content is distinctively British, but it also carries plenty of resonance for us Yanks who have our own problems with ineffectual bureaucracy and a political system perilously short on truth and integrity. Like the movie’s title, which references parties of both the political and festive kind, Potter is bent on making sure everyone has a good time, making us laugh at an ever-more corrupt system of government that increasingly makes us want to lay down and cry.

“The Party”

Cast includes Kristin Scott Thomas, Timothy Spall, Cherry Jones, Patricia Clarkson, Cillian Murphy, Bruno Ganz and Emily Mortimer. (R for language and drug use.)

Grade: B+

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