Tuesday, November 12, 2013

FI: Abigail's Party

Abigail's Party
UK, 1977
Written and directed by Mike Leigh

As much as I enjoy the films of Mike Leigh, with their dialogue-heavy, character-centered scripts and lengthy rehearsal periods dedicated to investing the actors in their roles, Abigail's Party has not aged well. Part of this is practical: this production was originally aired on the BBC as a part of their Play for Today series. This necessarily means that production values are quite low and, as a result, this looks more like a low-rent sitcom than a "proper" film. With few exceptions, Abigail's Party is shot and lit like a multi-camera TV show, with a master shot and close-ups filmed simultaneously to facilitate continuous action without cutting to reset lights and camera set-ups. This benefits the build-up of tension and energy, and fits well with Abigail's Party's origins in the theater—the script calls for a single set, which makes shooting this way logical as well as practical. Unfortunately, unlike its Play for Today predecessor Nuts in May, which used location shooting in spite of its similarly low budget, Abigail's Party feels distinctly non-cinematic as a result.

Like many of Leigh's works, this one has a focus on the miseries of the middle classes, particularly the lower, aspiring subset. Here, Beverly (Allison Steadman) and Laurence (Tim Stern) are a childless couple in their thirties. He is an estate agent while she is a department store beautician—both jobs involving the façades people present to the world that may not match their inner selves or socioeconomic conditions. They invite new neighbors Angela (Janine Duvitski), a nurse, and Tony (John Salthouse), a former pro footballer who now works in computers, over for a small party, along with Susan (Harriet Reynolds), a divorcée whose unseen adolescent daughter Abigail is also having a party on the same night. The five characters joust and spar for position all night, with the bullying Beverly tending to dominate everyone else's will while Tony seethes quietly and Angela babbles amiably. As the evening progresses and the drinks pile-up, a degree of emotional violence enters the dialogue and reveals hidden (or not-so-hidden, in the case of Beverly and Laurence) hostilities between the couples.

It's a very small-scale piece, with stakes confined largely to the characters themselves, and the intimacy of the single setting helps drive home the point. As worked out by Leigh and the actors during rehearsal, the script is biting and the characters are well-defined and "real," which makes it even more painful to watch their inner darkness emerge. All of the actors clearly know their characters inside and out and do solid work, though Steadman is particularly brilliant in the lead role. She is unbearable yet magnetic, bouncing off of the other characters and feeding on them like an emotional vampire. There's a core, here, that's similar to the dysfunctional relationships in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, if less outwardly vicious. Still, Abigail's Party is very much of its day, and the fashions, music, and decor, probably great indicators of the characters' status and personalities at the time, have aged rather poorly and now seem quite camp. Coupled with the televisual, stagy presentation, these aspects make Abigail's Party more of a chore than it ought to be, though the script and actors almost make up for it. I would love to see what Leigh would make of this now, were he to revisit it.

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