Timothy Spall, Cillian Murphy, Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson in The Party

As Sly Stone once sang, “when I party/I party hearty/fun is on my mind.” And, while Sly could (and may still) be able to out-party the best of us, most people would likely concur with his basic premise: parties are good. Parties are fun. Let’s have a party!

I, however, have always been uncomfortable in social gatherings — even when I know a lot of my fellow celebrants. It’s my belief that when many people gather together in a single location, the risk that something will go gravely wrong outweighs any fun that might be had — and yes, I consider dancing with a lampshade on your head gravely wrong.

I imagine the characters in The Party (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Feb. 23) might share my feelings. Having gathered to celebrate the promotion of MP Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) to the position of Shadow Secretary of State for Health, this small group of chums are about to experience a series of sudden and unpleasant revelations that will make Janet’s professional accomplishment fade to insignificance.

That probably suits April (perpetual indie darling Patricia Clarkson, as acerbic as ever) just fine. An eternal cynic (“Janet actually believes change is achievable through parliamentary politics,” she sneers), April has come to offer her friend sincere but grudging congrats. Her current (but about to be former) boyfriend Gottfried (Bruno Ganz, looking impossibly ancient), has also come along for the fun, but things get a little awkward when Janet’s husband Bill (Timothy Spall, bearded and considerably lighter than usual – don’t worry, he lost the weight intentionally) shockingly announces he’s just been diagnosed with a terminal illness.

This, naturally, throws a pall on things, including the parallel announcement by couple Martha (Cherry Jones) and Jinny (Emily Mortimer) that they’re expecting triplets. And then there’s the arrival of Tom (Cillian Murphy), who’s just discovered his wife Marianne is leaving him… for Bill. Janet, meanwhile, is concealing a secret relationship of her own — and did I mention that a gun is also involved?

Written and directed by Sally Potter (Orlando), The Party looks and feels like a stage play adapted for the screen, but isn’t. Shot in black and white by fellow Orlando veteran Aleksei Rodionov, and clocking in at a brisk 71 minutes, this lean, mean little feature is completely fat free, with Potter’s relentless script offering an incisive, sharp-as-a-tack critique of the foibles of the liberal professional classes.

One of my longstanding gripes about awards season is that films reliant on ensemble acting often get short shrift, and this is definitely one of those films. While no one in The Party hogs the limelight or chews the scenery (indeed, Spall’s entire performance, including his announcement “looks like I’m done for, medically speaking” is brilliant in its understatement), the cast works together seamlessly to create an effectively bleak black comedy. Seems to me the film industry should find some way to acknowledge this line of work.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...