The utterly competent and organized Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) has just won an election and is her party’s newest health minister. She and her husband Bill celebrate with an intimate supper in their shabby-chic London townhouse full of books and vinyl records. Her guests include her succinct and sophisticated best friend April (Patricia Clarkson); April’s sweet and salty life coach boyfriend Gottfried; Bill’s university roommate and fellow professor Martha (Cherry Jones) and her young wife Jinny (Emily Mortimer); and finally, Tom, the financier husband of Janet’s colleague, Marianne. As each guest arrived, I felt a frisson of excitement, and not just because of the stellar cast, who entered, one by one, into the frame, as they arrived at the party. There was a suggestion of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as each character, sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely, often drunkenly, revealed a secret or a lie. So many expectations and dreams were shattered in 71 minutes, and there’s hardly any champagne poured. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie also came to mind as glamorous and cynical denizens of the London political and academic elite debate, argue, ruminate, and despair from room to room. (I admire the filmmakers for making the most of a small London bathroom as the site for so many large ruptures.) Of course, like the Buñuel film, no one is actually able to eat. The vol-au-vent is burning in the kitchen.
Albee and Buñel aside, this is solidly Sally Potter’s film: fast, full of verve, wit and panache. The writer/diector unsparingly focuses on the trappings of a pre-Brexit London clique, revealing the ways in which the most enduring of marriages and friendships have to contend with domestic strife, public and private politics, money, feminism, aging, gender dynamics, and power shifts. Bouncing from kitchen to sitting room to bathroom to backyard, each character’s identity, motivation and action clash against the others’ like balls in a confined space, exploding into a roundelay of tears, repercussions, accusations. Not one person deserves all or any of our sympathy – they are each flawed in their own way, and despite their high level of intelligence, are subject to uncivilized lust, jealousy, and anger. Sally Potter’s women – and this is an incredible ensemble of female actors – are particularly compelling to watch. They always manage to be funny and witty no matter how much things fall apart.
The film serves to remind us that everything that is political is deeply personal, no matter how much we try to remove ourselves from the reality of it. The question is, when the political permeates the home, who has to compromise?