REVIEW: ‘The Party’s Just Beginning’ (2019) is Mostly Bleak, With Mere Glimpses of Greatness

Rating: 2 out of 2.

“Moves between visceral, shocking, emotional uplifting moments, but is largely frustratingly mundane”

For Karen Gillan’s directorial debut The Party’s Just Beginning, she leaves behind the fantastical worlds of Doctor Who and Guardians of the Galaxy, and heads back to her Scottish roots. 

She stars as Liusaidh, a twenty-something that works on the cheese counter at a supermarket by day, and goes out to drink and shag her feelings away by night. Her best friend recently killed themselves – not a spoiler, it’s revealed before the title card rolls – and Liusaidh has been spiralling ever since. 

The trailer for The Party’s Just Beginning gives the impression that this is a bold, punchy, ‘hot mess’ character study – but the film itself only manages to achieve that kind of energy in rare glimpses. There are some interesting visual devices, like the words of Liusaidh’s opening monologue into a pub mic appearing as karaoke lyrics on screen, or seeing her turn the volume up from the perspective of the television itself. Most shots nicely incorporate a backdrop of neon, twinkly fairy lights, giving a suitably festive feel, and Pepijn Caudron’s synthy soundtrack is satisfyingly blaring throughout.

What lets the movie down is the cumbersome script and wincingly on-the-nose dialogue. Liusaidh is depressed, stuck in a depressing job in a depressing town with a depressing family, and whilst the visual storytelling gets this across just fine, Gillan’s screenplay ruins the mood. Full of speeches comprised of perfectly articulated pain and zero authenticity, it feels a million miles away from real human conversation, and as though she didn’t trust the viewer to understand just how bad Liusaidh’s life is without spelling it out in excruciating detail.

The vast amount of time spent on unnecessary monologuing would have been put to much better use in fleshing out the characters. Liusaidh is our protagonist, and though Gillan is extra charming when unleashed with her natural accent and in a more grounded setting, we barely get to know her as a three dimensional person. Her development is mostly left to how we see her in relation to various other damaged people in her life, most of which are men. She flits from crisis to crisis, acting as a sounding board for other people’s problems, but never getting to really explore her own. 

Matthew Beard is certainly magnetic as best friend Alistair, but is done dirty with a first-base depiction of what it is to be queer and trans; his marginalisation is used more as a tool to push the plot along than shown with any real depth or consideration, and only feeds into the trope of the gay best friend that ends up dead. 

The only positive romantic connection we see Liusaidh have is with Dale (Lee Pace), a handsome stranger trying to escape his own problems. Their relationship starts out as a one night stand, but progresses to something much deeper – or at least, that’s how the film wants you to feel. What we actually see is fairly lacking in getting that across, and there’s virtually no conversation between the two to make their eventual goodbye feel earned. Pace brings a calm and considered approach to this character, and it would have been a joy to see the chemistry between him and Gillan given a little more room to breathe.

As a character study, The Party’s Just Beginning falls down. But, as a scathing glance at the facade that is everyday life, it has some remarkably shocking and effective moments. Liusaidh is constantly watching people through windows, judging and comparing as a spectator from the outside. A second look often shows that not everything is as it seems. One of the most impactful threads is that of her relationship with each of her parents; her mother (Siobhan Redmond) is a shallow, image-obsessed annoyance that prefers the idea of supporting her daughter rather than actually doing it, and her father (Paul Higgins), is a near-silent presence in the house who seems terrified at the idea of uttering anything close to real emotion. The dynamic between the three is sure to resonate with anyone who has felt trapped in the domestic prison of a traditional nuclear family, and is crafted here more masterfully than anything else in the film..

Much like life, The Party’s Just Beginning moves between visceral, shocking, emotional and uplifting moments, but is largely frustratingly mundane. There are occasional instances of authentic humanity, but it never quite manages to sustain them. Its bleak outlook makes the runtime feel much longer than its actually quite compact 90 minutes – and, though it does manage to put Karen Gillan on the map as a burgeoning talent in getting under the skin of the human condition, ultimately, you’ll be relieved when the lights come up, the music stops, and the party’s over. 

Director: Karen Gillan  

Cast: Karen Gillan, Matthew Beard, Lee Pace, Siobhan Redmond, Paul Higgins