An unstable woman (Lara Cox) plots an evening to remember where the invited guests of her soiree are not guaranteed to leave the table alive. Tensions mount as the true nature of the gathering becomes frighteningly clear to those at the table, and what should have been a pleasant evening all round becomes a struggle to both understand and ultimately survive the ordeal.

2.5
Tragic true story adaptation lacks grace.

This psychological thriller from first time director Scott Murden derives from a true story. A Canberra law student, Anu Singh, was found guilty of manslaughter after it was discovered that she first drugged her boyfriend, Joe Cinque, and then injected him with heroin.

Sordid and grim, tragic and sad, these facts suggest a certain kind of drama that’s becoming increasingly popular on the festival/low budget indie circuit – a realist trawl through Gen Y disillusionment and moral relativity. Alas, Murden has by passed that tone and gone for a style that’s part modern horror movie, part hyped art film.

The film’s opening moments are deliberately scrambled; there are scenes of a police interrogation violently juxtaposed with characters running through misty parklands at night. It soon becomes apparent that 'something terrible has happened’ and as the narrative unfolds this traumatic event will emerge, along with the awful truth. Once the set up is established, the film settles into a fairly linear narrative but that turns out to be not such a good thing. That’s because the film begins to depend for its interest on character (as opposed to plot and style) and since the personalities that fill out the cast aren’t very intriguing, the movie stops and stalls. It’s is a shame, since there’s much here that’s worthwhile.

For starters there is Lara Cox, best known as a soapie actor, playing Angela. She is planning to kill herself and her boyfriend Joel (Ben Seton) at a dinner party. She invites a bunch of friends along to... well, watch, I guess. There’s yobbo Freddy (Kai Harris), boofhead Matt (Sam Lyndon) and a character that might be described as 'Rent a Bitch’ called Sky (Mariane Power). The only figure here that has any heart (and a strong and credible moral centre and therefore a powerful motivation) is Maddy (Jessica Turner, excellent) as Angela’s angsty best mate.

Murden’s direction is quite strong at times; the emotional atmosphere is fraught, and there are some really strong and moody set pieces. (The best amongst them a scene where Maddy and Angela score smack from a dealer who can’t understand why such nice clean cut girls might want to try the hard stuff.) Still, the script has no grace or elegance at all. This is the kind of work where characters behave in a certain way, not based on an inner drive but because if they didn’t the movie would drop dead. (I seem to have written that particular criticism a lot lately.)

Worse than the convenient plotting perhaps is the way Murden works out his theme. Everything here is writ large; Murden works out his drama like he was an ethics instructor. He wants to make absolutely certain we understand all the choices on hand and what they may tell us about what kind of society we have. That’s all very well but in The Dinner Party it doesn’t seem to have much to do with trying to dramatise recognisable human emotions. For instance, what did Freddy and Matt hope to get out of the dinner party? Are we expected to believe that for them the invite was a bit of frivolous fun? (As it’s presented in the movie) Are they supposed to represent the desensitised fan boy generation?

There’s no doubt that Murden wanted to be serious; the movie can’t be mistaken for anything else but earnest. But it’s also somewhat mechanical and heartless too and that turns out to be deadly.

Details

1 hour 28 min

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