Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party is a relentlessly unpleasant but fascinating social satire about an ill-fated social gathering. Leigh developed the story and dialogue by having the actors improvise their roles, as he has done throughout his career. Abigail's Party relies heavily on the performances of its five cast members, with mixed results. Alison Steadman, as Beverly, the party's rapacious and obnoxious hostess, is brilliantly over-the-top. She completely inhabits Beverly, and every line reading and physical movement seems completely organic. Steadman walks the fine line between the horrific and the comedic with bravado and aplomb. As outrageous as Beverly is, she never comes across as a cartoon, which can't be said for Laurence (Tim Stern), her snobbish husband. Stern makes every gesture bigger than it has to be, as though he were trying to compete with Steadman. Each actor is overplaying, to a certain degree, and the theatrical roots of the piece are clear, but Stern's performance is almost farcical. It stands outside the general tone of the film in a jarring way. The other performers fare better. Janine Duvitski's Angela seems like a blithering, tactless idiot at first, but she displays little glimmers of sharpness in her quiet jabs at Tony (John Salthouse), so it's believable when she turns out to be a steady hand during the climactic crisis. Harriet Reynolds is very good as the relatively sane Sue, quietly and effectively portraying her transition from discomfort to horror at the surrounding lunacy. Salthouse is amusing as the grumpy Tony, but one of the frustrations of the film is that it's impossible to figure out exactly what Tony is about. What happens when Tony and Laurence go to check on Abigail's party? What does Sue hear over the phone in the closing moments? Leigh leaves it all a nagging mystery.
by Josh Ralske review