As of 2017, Scotland held the highest suicide rate in the UK. Between 2011 and 2017 73% of those suicides were three times more likely to be men living in the most socio-economically deprived areas. Set in Inverness, The Party’s Just Beginning uses these statistics to shine a light on the issue and uses suicide to drive the overarching narrative. Not the most uplifting subject, however, first time director Karen Gillan puts her own surreal and oddly positive, comedic spin on dark proceedings.
Twenty-four year old Liusaidh (Gillan) works on the cheese counter of a local supermarket. Her evenings tend to involve getting drunk, getting ‘lucky’, then shovelling in chips along the long walk home a little worse for wear… and rinse repeat. Her nightly routine (when not out drinking) consists of opening the net curtains and observing the neighbouring families opposite and see how they are with each other, while her own parents (Paul Higgins and Siobhan Redmond) leave their only daughter to her own devices. Liusaidh’s best friend Alistair (Matthew Beard), unable to cope with his own problems – including the loss of his drug-addled father – jumped off a bridge and onto an incoming train the year before.
Liusaidh is stuck in her crummy little town destined to relive a groundhog day of grief while remembering the fun, friendship (and pain) they experienced when he was alive. These memories are intercut throughout the film in a series of flashbacks. Liusaidh is reckless and overwhelmed with sorrow, loneliness and thoughts of suicide; Alistair’s, her own and other people’s, and she copes in the only way she knows how – silence and self-medication.
She’s fighting to heal and when she meets beautiful and mysterious stranger Dale (Lee Pace, complete with yet another convincing British accent), things briefly improve and perhaps, perhaps a little happiness starts to creep in. There’s also the old man who calls the house. One of a group of many who hit a wrong digit and rather than contacting the Helpline they’re after get through to a cracked (not yet completely broken) household. Liusaidh doesn’t hang up on this nuisance caller – who is grappling with his own regrets and losses – his disembodied voice becomes the ‘in’ to her own recovery.
Writer-director Gillan is best known for her work in front of the camera, first as Amy Pond in Doctor Who and now as blue-hued baldy Nebula in Guardians of the Galaxy, Infinity War and Endgame but has spent the last four years writing and directing short films. (One of which, Conventional, was screened at this year’s FrightFest). The Party’s Just Beginning is her first feature but you would never know it given its assured nature with visuals – shout-out to make-up artist Jacqui Mallett whose subtle brush strokes make Liusaidh’s stubble rash and growing black rings and eye bags wholly realistic – rapid kinetic cuts and the soundtrack. Composed by Kreng, it combines classical (including snippets of Grieg’s “Peer Gynt”), electro and original music. The leitmotif of The Communards’ ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ is a nice (Scottish) touch to an already dark and, at times, absurd film.
While Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag cornered the market for middle-class woman in their thirties, Gillan’s Liusaidh has a lot to say for the millennial working-class woman in her twenties (even her name is Gaelic for ‘female’). Both created women struggling with their own identity and grief. Gillan uses the backdrop of the grey vista of Scotland to great effect. While the issues depicted are universal, the film is quintessentially Scottish and the scenes set in the Clootie Well (a Celtic place of pilgrimage where rags or pieces of clothing are tied to elicit healing) are beautiful with visuals and colours reminiscent of Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways and more recently Rachel Tunnard’s 2016 gem Adult Life Skills.
Not content with the themes of suicide, depression and mental health, Gillan also adds rape and notions of consent, alcoholism, drug abuse, religion, homosexuality and transgender identity. She should be commended for tackling such issues and not least in her first feature film, however, it becomes one issue too many and this shoehorning leaves a feeling of contrivance which unravels the narrative somewhat and stretches the gamut of believability. Nit-picking aside, Gillan has brought together a talented crew and supporting cast including Pace and Beard. There are also lovely parts for instantly recognisable Higgins (Line of Duty, Utopia) and Redmond (Unforgotten, Taggart) as well as cameos by Daniela Nardini (Waterloo Road, This Life) and Julie Graham (Shetland, The Bletchley Circle).
There are moments in The Party’s Just Beginning that will hit you in the gut with at least one aspect of the storyline that most will identify with. As a feature debut, it is formidable in parts, flawed in others and yet, well worth 91 minutes of your time.