Patricia Clarkson in The Party

I fear Patricia Clarkson’s judgment. Like many moviegoers, I first took notice of the actress when she played Eleanor Fine, a conservative white housewife in 1950s Connecticut, in Todd Haynes’s revisionist melodrama Far From Heaven (2002). Eleanor’s friend Cathy has fallen in love with a black man, and a pivotal moment in the story arrives when Eleanor finally pieces the truth together and fixes her old friend with an ice-cold stare. Her expression lands like a slap, communicating instantly that Cathy is about to lose not only her closest confidante (apart from her lover) but also her social standing. Clarkson was much praised for her performance, winning best supporting actress awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics. Since then she’s enjoyed a healthy film career as a bitch for hire, though seldom in a vehicle so witty and cerebral as Sally Potter’s drawing-room comedy The Party.

Again Clarkson plays a best friend with a serrated edge. Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas), a British politician, and her grumpy jazz-buff husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), are hosting a dinner party to celebrate Janet’s recent appointment as minister of health; among their guests are Janet’s acerbic pal April (Clarkson) and her husband, Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), a new age healer. Tom (Cillian Murphy), a handsome businessman, arrives before his wife, ducking into the bathroom to inhale a gigantic line of cocaine, and lesbian marrieds Jinny (Emily Mortimer) and Martha (Cherry Jones) gather everyone together to announce that Jinny is expecting triplets. Bill, who’s been brooding all night, pipes up with news of his own: he is terminally ill and doesn’t have long to live. This touches off not only the expected sympathies from his friends and anguish from his wife but also spirited debates on socialized medicine, alternative remedies, and life philosophies, all punctuated by April’s wicked put-downs.

“I expect the worst of everyone, in the name of realism,” April explains at one point. Gottfried is her whipping boy of choice; with elegant contempt she tells the others, “You can see why I’m separating definitively from this . . . German.” Martha is “a first-class lesbian and a second-rate thinker,” and Tom is “a wanker banker with a mysterious ability to make millions out of others’ misfortune.” Democracy is “finished,” and marriage is “an insufferably sunny institution.” April’s judgments carry so much authority that after a while she begins to seem like an omniscient narrator, filling us in on the other characters’ foibles. But I sure hope she isn’t, because then Patricia Clarkson would be God and we’d all be damned for eternity.  v