The personal has been political for decades, but depending on who you ask, there’s much more to it than that. In Laura Wade’s play Posh–and the film adaptation The Riot Club–we’re told it’s the “state of the world, mate. Everything’s political.” Watching The Party, that idea slowly bleeds through into the foreground of the film; Janet (Kristen Scott Thomas) is promoted to Shadow Health Secretary, a high-profile role in British politics, to the point where some of her friends even say she might become the next Prime Minister. But what begins as a celebration ends as a tragedy.
The men and women that make up Sally Potter’s The Party come from different walks of life and believe very different things. But it never becomes a matter of who voted for which party in the last election. Instead, their politics comes from every aspect of their lives, from who they love and used to love to which hospital they go to. And with Janet as the new Shadow Health Secretary, hospitals are important, especially because of Bill (Timothy Spall). Bill is Janet’s husband and Bill isn’t well. Discussions of Bill’s health drift between the personal, the political, and back again, until the lines between the two of them are blurred. Janet even says that she and Bill have always thought “health is a political issue.” So when Bill reveals that he didn’t go to their local GP, but went to a private doctor instead, things change.
Bill’s health becomes secondary to Bill’s politics and the idea of ideological purity: being liberal enough, left-wing enough, or queer enough. The latter becomes an issue for Martha and Jinny (Cherry Jones and Emily Mortimer), two women who are expecting three children. Well, three boys. When Jinny discovers that Martha had a thing with Bill decades ago when they were at university together, she’s shocked; shocked that her partner isn’t a lesbian, shocked that she “had a man inside [her].” There’s an emphasis on the inside, that the fact she slept with Bill forever ago isn’t just a sign that her sexuality is different, that she isn’t quite the person she said she was–she’s called a “first-rate lesbian, and a second-rate thinker”–but instead it becomes an act of betrayal, both personally and politically. The revelations about Bill, and the sex of their children, creates a schism between them. Martha even says “men are not the enemy,” bemoaning how many times she’s had conversations like that. Implicitly, the bump in their relationship opens up questions about sexuality and ideology, questioning how much of something you have to be to be accepted, and how much is too much; how much makes those that aren’t like you “the enemy.”
Janet’s job isn’t the only political one. Tom (Cillian Murphy) is a banker. A rich banker with a coke habit. But the way that Tom clashes with everyone else brings out their hypocrisies, ideological obsessions, and personal failings. Tom argues at Bill that “money paid for this house.” People on the left, like Bill and Janet, tend to not like bankers. And it turns out bankers don’t like Bill and Janet. Tom’s comments highlight the disdain for money–and by extension capitalism–that Bill and Janet have. Their issues with Tom are about the political dimensions and ramifications of his job. But they’re not above money, and although Tom’s comments remind them of something as simple as the fact that they need money to live, it shows the ways in which their politics clash with how they live in the world. As much as some of these characters hate bankers and capitalism, they still have to live with it. Money paid for their house, their nice wine, and their record collection. These characters are not infallible, and their politics are far from perfect.
But one thing that The Party never does is vilify anyone for their politics. Not even the banker. In a time where the political divide is continuing to widen, there’s something about that that’s interesting. The film doesn’t even present a polemic stance of “private bad, National Health Service good,” or anything like that. It refuses to be reductive about these people, their lives, and what they believe in. Jinny might not go so far as to believe that men are the enemy even though Martha insists on reminding her of that, but she does consider Martha having slept with Bill as a sort of political act. It is an act that reveals the limits of her ideology and the limits of her queerness (even if she is called a first-rate lesbian). The limits of Bill’s leftism are tested by the fact that he goes to a private doctor. But it isn’t just his political alignment that gets tested by that. It’s everything. His relationship with his wife, and with his friends, is cast in a new light.
With Jenny as a Shadow Health Secretary, it’s difficult not to think about the idea of towing the party line; of remembering your lines and what to say about what policy, the right soundbite for the right issue. But the question changes. It stops being about what response is right or what soundbite to use. The party, and The Party, is about the limits of that. The limits of politics and ideology; and what happens when those limits are reached, and how that changes people, making them question who they are, and what they believe in.
Directed by Sally Potter; written by Sally Potter; starring Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz, Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Timothy Spall; 71 minutes.