One of Britain’s few female auteurs is a favourite to win at the Berlin International Film Festival with a comedy about what she describes as “broken England.”
The Party is just over an hour long, shot in black and white, and has an all-star cast including Kristin Scott Thomas, Timothy Spall, Cillian Murphy and Patricia Clarkson as a group of politicians and intellectuals whose lives dramatically unravel at a social gathering.
Its writer and director, Sally Potter, describes it as a “political statement, a political comedy”.
“Politics affects everything in the film,” she says, “right down to the politics of the relationships between the characters.”
From an instrumental, clunky-sounding version of the well-known hymn Jerusalem at the start, to Kristin Scott-Thomas’s role as a politician on the verge of a cabinet job, and its setting in an affluent part of London, The Party seems culturally timely.
Potter started writing the film before the last general election in 2015, when she “had the sense people were losing the ability to know what truth was in political life”.
“That’s why truth telling is central to my story, it’s the notion that politics is everywhere and the way forward is truth telling.”
Potter told a press conference in Berlin that the film was “a light and loving look at the state of England – a broken England – and the sense of what can go wrong when people lose touch with their principles”.
Peaky Blinders star, Irish actor Cillian Murphy, recounts that the Brexit vote happened during the two- week shoot for the film.
“It was extraordinary and profound. It brought home to us how insightful the script was and how it spoke to modern Britain – and then what’s happened in America since.”
“The Brexit vote really threw us,” adds Timothy Spall. “There was a massive sense of mourning amongst the cast and crew.”
Spall agrees that the film’s setting amongst the British “elite”, derided by many critics as “out of touch” with public opinion, is significant.
“They’re people who have prided themselves on their ability to maintain civilisation, they feel they carry the right side of things. If you want to rule your country you have to maintain an inbred arrogance that eventually starts to fall apart in the film.
“There’s a switch from being articulate to seeing the animal in us. It’s a very physical comedy in that sense.”
Murphy, who plays a drug-taking, firearm-carrying, city banker, said that he loved the idea of “finding humanity in a banker – even if they aren’t society’s favourite people at the moment.
“I just liked the way the character unravels in front of our eyes – and perhaps that provokes some pathos.”
Sally Potter, who has a background in performance art, has made seven feature films in her career since her first short film, Jerk, made in 1969.
The highlight so far may be her adaptation of the Virginia Woolf novel Orlando. Made in 1992, and starring Tilda Swinton as a character who moves through seven centuries as both a man and a woman, it received global critical acclaim.
This time, she says, she wanted to make a comedy with a lot of language building on the cinematic tradition that stretches back to theatre.
“I wanted to find a way of making a comedy where characters could fully reveal themselves in a compressed place and time. I wanted to go as deep as we possibly can, and yet laugh.”
“Actors dream of projects like this,” Cillian Murphy claims. “It’s all about the concept and pitch nowadays, and the action, whereas this is all characters talking in a room. It happens so rarely these days.”
The Party received a warm response from the international audience at its world premiere in Berlin, and was described by trade magazine Variety as “a return to form for Sally Potter… with a caviar-black comedy”.
Potter, one of four women directors in competition at the festival, says that the film was shot in black and white “as it gives a space for emotional colour” and harks back to some of her favourite films.
“It was shot in two weeks in one location, and I put my time into choosing the actors for the characters. They’re all intelligent people, and it’s about provoking the magic of collaboration.”
“Really, I think it’s the antidote to big-budget film making, which can often create numbness.”
The Berlin International Film Festival runs until 19 February.