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Sally Potter refashions “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” for a new darkly hip age

The party animals (Top L-R) Cillian Murphy, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emily Mortimer,
Cherry Jones
(Bottom L-R) Patricia Clarkson, Timothy Spall, and Bruno Ganz

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

In the Mike Nichols classic “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), a bitterly caustic couple, use another, much younger couple (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) as pawns in their never-ending and highly-codependent relationship war of attrition. While much of the action centers around the two couples captured in the claustrophobic setting of George and Martha’s home, following a larger party, the anticipated arrival of the older couple’s son the next day – for his birthday – proves to be the weapon with the potential to result in
mutual destruction.

Writer-director Sally Potter (“Orlando”) borrows from this premise for her new drama “The Party,” but ups the ante with a few more guests – like a progressive lesbian couple (Cherry Jones and Emily Mortimer), a plain-spoken cynic (Patricia Clarkson), her German New Age paramour (Bruno Ganz), and a coked-up businessman (Cillian Murphy) with a gun and a hidden agenda. Potter grounds the proceedings in the marital discord between Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Bill (Timothy Spall), the seemingly happy hosts of a party celebrating Janet’s elevation as her government’s Minister for Health. We’re supposed to see Janet and Bill as the perfect power duo who have worked and sacrificed for this moment, but from the start, Bill looks more like an empty shell being dragged across the finish line of a three-legged race. The key narrative tension is in the waiting game that takes place as we prepare for Bill to come raging to life one last time.

In the meantime, Potter lets her talented cast cut loose in this chamber affair where wine and whining (in equal measure) spotlights every single microscopic fissure in the delicate façade these characters believe they have constructed. There is a certain joy in watching the brittle patrician armor of Clarkson’s American expat buckle under repeated blows. She can sleepwalk through a role like this, but she’s wide-awake in every moment, a raw nerve working overtime to mask the psychological hurt being inflicted. This turn serves as a stark and telling contrast to the hip and freewheeling types, like Emma Stone’s mother in “Easy A,” where she slips effortlessly into such different skins. I would argue that this is the finest example of an actor playing a “character” rather than a “type.”

Clarkson’s been in this situation before though, back in the 2003 indie dramedy “Pieces of April,” where she played the dying mother of the title character (Katie Holmes) who invites her family to her apartment for Thanksgiving dinner, a meal and event she is wholly unprepared for. While that film falls into the family holiday fiasco genre, the similarities to the disastrous party dynamic are worth the call for re-alignment. It could be argued that we are never more ourselves than when we’re attempting to put on a false happy face.

Which leads the discussion back to “The Party.” Potter’s aces in the hole are Thomas and Spall. With much of the early action keeping them in separate rooms – Thomas’s Janet is in the kitchen preparing her own celebratory meal, while Spall’s Bill mans the high fidelity record player in the living room where he mutters to himself – but we can tell the divide between them is far wider than the space between these two rooms. In fact, it is intriguing to observe how long it takes for the two characters to actually speak to one another.

Let’s just say, when that happens, the real fireworks of “The Party” kick off and we’re in for a series of twisted surprises. These relationship dramas always pretend to employ a few bitter laughs, but Potter’s staging removes the obvious ha-ha factor from the equation, leaving us wincing more often than not. There is simply nothing funny about adults wielding words and deeds in such intimately harmful fashion.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming ploughed the same terrain in their 2001 film “The Anniversary Party” playing a power couple questioning their work-personal dynamic on the eve of their anniversary. I can’t help but wonder if these films speak more to a particular upper class set than to everyday folks, and if so, has anyone ever wondered if regular people want to watch and bask in the “spectacular” disintegration of the lives of others.

No matter, because Potter’s “Party” foregoes the big bang, reminding us that another one will always be on the horizon, and we will be there, like happy flies drawn to the stink.   

Rating: R; Grade: B