In UK director Sally Potter’s brisk 71-minuter, a group of friends gather at the house of the hostess, Janet, a high-ranking politician (Kristin Scott Thomas), to celebrate her elevation to the position of shadow health spokeswoman.

Sally Potter’s The Party

Like each of the filmmaker’s previous titles, including Orlando and The Tango Lesson, the film represents an unexpected sideways leap of style (her auteur signature, so to speak, is not to have one), this time into the familiar terrain of the well-crafted comedy-drama about a domestic social event that goes disastrously wrong. While it feels as if it might have been adapted from a play, Potter wrote it for the screen.

She certainly doesn’t appear scared of nodding towards its various antecedents. Like Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, someone collapses onto the living room floor in the third act, and like Ernest Lehman and Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, there’s a character called Martha, though here she’s not the most acerbic woman. That would be the host’s best friend, April, whose ready supply of withering one-liners is handled with dry aplomb by Patricia Clarkson. Meanwhile the bourgeoisie baiting could have walked out of a Buñuel production, and while I have no idea if Potter is aware of the parallels, at least some Australian viewers will notice echoes of Don’s Party.

The inevitably rewarding Scott Thomas and Clarkson are joined by Emily Mortimer as Jinny, the pregnant (with triplets) half of a partnership completed by Martha (Cherry Jones). Bruno Ganz is in his usual fine form as supercilious New Age life coach Gottfried, while Tim Spall plays Janet’s husband, Bill, an academic struck by a severe mid-life crisis.

Potter handles the competing sub-plots like an experienced emergency surgeon in a disaster zone, exploring themes including rationality versus irrationality and the sickness lurking within apparently healthy relationships. Secrets are teasingly hinted at before their inevitable, terrible revelation.

Add to this the crisp black and white work of veteran Russian cinematographer Aleksei Rodionov and the result is a dynamic piece of cinema rather than what might have been, in lesser hands, a movie that would prefer to be a stage play.