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DVD Review: ‘The Dinner Party’

★☆☆☆☆

TV soap operas have often proved to be the perfect platform for young acting talent to cut their thespian teeth. Australia’s hugely successful soap export Neighbours helped to launch the acting careers of Alan Dale (Entourage, Lost) and Guy Pearce (LA Confidential [1997], Memento [2000]), whilst its main antipodean ratings rival Home and Away has also had its fair share of breakout stars including Ryan Kwanten, the show’s lovable idiot Vinnie who now plays yet another sympathetic imbecile in hit US vampire series True Blood.

Unfortunately for actress Lara Fox (pictured), a leading role in both Home and Away and Australian teen drama Heartbreak High was apparently insufficient to help her land a role in a more accomplished, well-made feature than The Dinner Party (2009).

Directed by newcomer Scott Murden – and apparently inspired by true events – The Dinner Party centres on the ill-fated, RSVP-only event of the film’s title. Wracked by jealousy over her boyfriend Joel’s (Ben Seton) more than amicable relationship with his ex-girlfriend Sky (Mariane Power), host Angela (Lara Cox), a mentally unstable Canberran student, sends out invitations to the party’s guests explicitly stating that both she and Joel are to commit suicide at the evening’s climax.

Drawn by a number of motives ranging from concern to downright morbid curiosity, the guests assemble. A prospective viewer could be forgiven for anticipating a tightly constructed psychological thriller; what we get instead is a dull, poorly executed drama akin to an extended episode of Late Night Hollyoaks, slowly lumbering towards its entirely predictable, underwhelming ending.

Audacious comparisons with Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s seminal 1998 debut (and Dogme #1) Festen within the film’s hyperbolic press material prove to be completely unfounded. Despite the shared basic premise of being set at a dinner party, the two films could not be more different in scripting, tone and execution. Whereas Vinterberg’s exploration of dark family secrets within Danish high society is gradually constructed scene by scene, interaction by interaction, Murden signposts his film’s key themes and narrative progression so clearly he may as well have spelt them out in 50 foot high, neon capitals.

Rather than reveal vital, plot relevant information in stages so to build suspense (Festen is a near perfect example of how to utilize the three act structure, with its alternating dramatic peaks and troughs), the audience are essentially bludgeoned around the head with all the obvious indicators needed to second-guess the character’s future actions within the first 20 minutes (a syringe intended for the injection of heroin is instead filled with sugary water – I wonder if this is significant…) Consequently, the remaining 66 minutes of running time agonizingly plays out with all the suspenseful tension of an episode of Mr Benn.

Narrative failures aside, The Dinner Party is also sabotaged by some baffling decisions in terms of both shot selection and editing that I find hard to attribute to the film’s meagre, yet ample $200k budget. Handheld, almost Dogme-esque footage following Angela and friend into the gritty, heroin afflicted Canberran suburbs (for an infinitely more accomplished attempt at portraying Australia’s criminal underworld, watch Andrew Dominik’s Chopper [2000]) are juxtaposed awkwardly with the poorly framed static shots documenting the film’s single event, the party itself.

This lack of understanding for how compelling camerawork can help to drive even the most stuttering of scripts is further confounded by a number of faltering performances. Cox comes out on top (just) but must surely be looking retrospectively at her involvement in the production as a backward step for her career.

As shockingly dull as it is frustrating and aimless, The Dinner Party nevertheless succeeds in highlighting the rising dependence that human society now places on illegal drugs as tools for escaping the traumas of reality – three quarters of my way through this arduous, paceless film, a rohypnol/heroine cocktail seemed somehow rather appealing. Truly awful.

Daniel Green