Even though The Party isn’t technically based on a play, this new movie exhibits both the best and worst attributes of stage-to-screen adaptations.
Since I try to be a positive person, let’s start with the best, even though they’re outnumbered by the worst: the crackerjack ensemble of consummate jack-of-all-trades performers, including Timothy Spall, Kristin Scott Thomas, Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz, Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer, and Cillian Murphy. Much like a play, literally no other actors make an appearance. Which is fine because the ones we do see are afforded characters who are REAL CHARACTERS, ceaselessly PLAYING around with each other, boasting equal shares of dramatic fireworks to boot, which they uniformly make mince meat of on their way to devouring the rest of the sparse, one-household locale.
The premise is familiar enough to be archetypal: a group of hysterical adults — more in manner than humor — meet up for an all-night, verbal-driven, and spat-filled cocktail party during which secrets are revealed, relationships are thrown asunder, arguments and libations are had (loudly), deep thoughts are waxed poetic, and everything else you’d expect from such an artistic gathering. There’s basically no conventional plot to speak of other than expository backstory coming to light; in other words, it’s light on the sort of present events that customarily engage audiences.
Instead, the characters’ inner emotional and mental states dictate and largely comprise the story, the stutteringly-propulsive motor for which is laboriously fueled by words words words, with the characters orally (and sometimes physically) sparring over Serious Matters (caps to denote the seriousness, though it’s handled with a light touch) pertaining to philosophy, existentialism, intellectualism, mortality, politics, class, relationships, and national healthcare.
Kind of sounds like last year’s similar Beatriz at Dinner, in addition to countless other examples, right? Yet most of those are vastly superior due to The Party’s predominant downfall: writer/director Sally Porter’s inability to modulate the inherent theatricality of this tried, true, and tired setup to scale it to the proper size for the big screen. There always seems to be an impulse to expand the world of a play to fill the unlimited canvass of cinema, but onstage theatricality usually needs to be toned down to feel at home in movie theaters. This may sound contradictory, but often what fills a big theater with audiences packed to the distant rafters looks too big when projected on a big screen with audiences mere feet away.
The Party would most probably land better on stage, where the emotional, comedic, and dramatic theatrics could play to the back of the house, existing far enough from the audience so they can access the world themselves. In person, the ensemble’s performative flourishes would invite in the audience. On screen, they prove off-putting by being too in the audience’s faces; we’re too close to the actors’ theatrical emoting. The experience of watching the movie is periodically reminiscent of sitting front row for a show played to the rear balcony.
The bald point-and-shoot cinematography makes it even worse. It may look like an unencumbered showcase of the acting, but it’s not the best showcase for the acting. Framing is just as important to the effect of a performance as the actual performance (filmed recordings of live theatre screened in cinemas commit the same critical mistake). The general timing of the proceedings just feels off, particularly of the comedic variety. The visuals bear no flare for cinematic humor (and the black-and-white cinematography is the most superficial way to separate onscreen art from our corporeal reality).
More than just Aleksei Rodionov’s cinematography, Sally Potter’s writing and directing lack finesse and fluidity. She needed to rough up the edges of her art; everything is too straightforward and deliberate and intended, revealing the excessively artificial hands of the cumbersome puppeteer.
In short, what works on stage doesn’t necessarily work on screen, and too often — in both The Party and other stage-to-screen adaptations — too much is, if not lost, then diminished in translation.