Image: The Orchard
Director: Karen Gillan
Starring: Karen Gillan, Lee Pace, Matthew Beard
Karen Gillan’s been busy recently, with the new Jumanji film in cinemas now, not to mention the record-breaking Avengers: Endgame earlier in the year. As well as blockbuster adventure Jumanji: The Next Level however, this month also sees the UK release of her directorial debut (at least in terms of feature length stuff – she’s also directed various short films in the past), The Party’s Just Beginning, which had its premiere a year back but has only now been released this side of the Atlantic.
It’s fair to say her first effort at writing and directing marks a huge departure from the kind of roles she’s most known for, in the likes of Doctor Who and the Marvel films. Though billed as a dark comedy, The Party’s Just Beginning is an incredibly bleak, sombre film that acts as a great showcase for Gillan and highlights some important issues, but which isn’t exactly fun, and gets genuinely hard to watch at points.
The film follows Liusaidh (which has to be the most Scottish name ever), who’s been struggling with depression, alcoholism and PTSD following the suicide of her best friend, Alistair. The film that’s been in development for a number of years, with Gillan working on the script whilst shooting for Guardians of the Galaxy, after Gillan was inspired by her own shock at suicide statistics for her hometown of Inverness.
The Highlands of Scotland have a suicide rate far higher than the rest of Britain, with young men particularly at risk. It’s estimated that there’s near to one person every week taking their own lives in this part of the country, something which Gillan has mentioned finding especially surprising considering how idyllic the region is seen as being, and her own happy upbringing. The Party’s Just Beginning sees her seeking to help kickstart a wider conversation on this, while also writing a film that focuses on a character she can play herself, rather than on the male character who, ultimately, is the one who takes their own life.
There’s clearly a lot of passion and talent that’s gone into the film, and Gillan herself really impresses. Anyone’s who’s followed her previous work will know she’s a talented actress, always bringing in compelling performances even when stuck underneath a load of blue makeup as she is in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She’s so obviously got such a bubbly personality in real life that she’s able to make even the most messed-up characters instantly funny and likeable. Her comic timing and delivery in this is spot on, managing to come off as naturally witty, but also grounded and realistic. However, Gillan is also able to show off her skills in writing and directing as well here, and it’s there where she really impresses.
The script, admittedly, can feel a bit clichéd at times. Perhaps the least interesting stuff in it are the flashbacks to her relationship with Alistair who, facing violence for being trans, with a drug problem and a closeted Priest for a boyfriend, seems to encapsulate some of the more stereotypical, simplistic ideas of the various factors that can drive people to consider suicide. But for the most part it works, and some of the dialogue is genuinely brilliant. Gillan’s sarcastic deadpan lines, her reactions to the vacuousness of the people around her, or the scenes depicting her dead-end supermarket job, with the same oddball continually asking if they stock particular varieties of cheese, are all great.
It’s in Gillan’s direction however where the film most shines. We get a far better idea of what Liusaidh is dealing with from the scenes showing her staring through the windows of her neighbours, or hooking up with random men when off her face, than we do from any long-winded, repetitive flashbacks. The sound editing in particular is outstanding. The soundtrack really helps add to the sense of her feeling overwhelmed, and the karaoke-style renditions of disco beats feel authentic to the sort of mundane, small town life the film presents us with.
Spoilers from this point.
Gillen demonstrates throughout that she clearly has a strong sense of style, with a drug-taking scene set to some classic music really standing out, if also seeming a bit film student-ish. Perhaps the single most impressive moment in the whole film is one scene where, to her horror, Liusaidh sees through her window that one, seemingly happy, neighbour, has hanged himself. Her own reaction to this is played really well, but what’s truly chilling is the sound of a rope creaking – a sound that then continues through the next few scenes, Tell-Tale Heart style, over dinner time conversation and the television in the background. It’s a scene that’s utterly horrifying, but so well done, and it helps the film to avoid simply feeling like it’s just trying to be edgy when tackling these issues.
It seems like there is much more coverage of issues surrounding mental health and suicide in the media these days – Fleabag and Bojack Horseman spring to mind as the most successful examples. But I can’t think of much which is quite as visceral and unflinching in its depictions of these problems as The Party’s Just Beginning. This is both the best and the worst thing about the movie.
It absolutely captures the horror of suicide, and it’s certainly important that we do talk about this stuff more. But at the same time, everything in this movie is so bleak, so devastating, so horrendous that it does feel a bit melodramatic, and all you want by the end is some relief, something that isn’t just traumatic. Witty lines aside, this is not exactly something you can relax with, and it doesn’t really end with any sense of hopefulness, or even let up on the grimness in its characters’ lives. While, for the majority of the runtime, it retains its sarcastic, dour sense of humour and likeable characters, things gradually get worse and worse, and the last twenty minutes are almost unwatchable.
There’s one particularly hideous scene where, so drunk she’s barely conscious, Liusaidh goes back with three guys, and really, it just feels like too much as we have to endure it being played out. It’s then followed by us actually having to go through the suicide scene that the various flashbacks have been building towards, even though we’ve all already worked out exactly what happened, as well as a grim end to the sub-plot where Liusaidh’s been talking on the phone with an elderly man who was trying to reach a helpline and dialling her number by mistake.
This is a film which, often, doesn’t feel like it has much of a message, instead just showing one horrific incident after another. That isn’t to say it’s not worth watching, nor that it doesn’t have anything important to say – but it absolutely needs these kind of content warnings. Whether you have been personally effected by these issues or not, this is heavy stuff, and you come out of it desperately needing something lighter. Have a picture of kittens or something you can look at throughout. And no watching Schindler’s List or anything like that after, just to complete the dark evening.