If you ask a Scottish person what the best Scottish film is, the answer you’re most likely to receive is Trainspotting. One iconic scene involves the group of heroin addicts walking in the countryside, to which Tommy asks, doesn’t the beautiful landscape make you proud to be Scottish? Ewan McGregor then delivers a monologue that has lived on as the thesis of our great country:
“It’s shite being Scottish. We’re the lowest of the low. The scum of the fucking Earth. The most wretched, miserable, servile, pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilisation. Some people hate the English — I don’t, they’re just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonised by wankers. Can’t even find a decent culture to be colonised by. We’re ruled by effete arseholes. It’s a shite state of affairs to be in, Tommy, and all the fresh air in the world won’t make any fucking difference.”
Despite being one of the greatest cultural artifacts of our country, Trainspotting doesn’t exactly show Scotland in a great light. It’s dark, dirty and uncomfortable to watch; no one outside of Scotland can understand what the characters are saying; it features Ewan McGregor climbing into ‘The Worst Toilet in Scotland’. British culture, but even more so Scottish culture, is built on self-deprecation. We take pride in taking the piss out of ourselves. Scotland is a great country — I love living here — but we can’t get too carried away. Scottish cinema operates in much the same way. In other countries, films tend to make their locations look enviable — I’ve seen too many love letters to New York to count — but you’re unlikely to see that with a Scottish film (unless you’re Mel Gibson, who isn’t even Scottish.) Scottish cinema explores the unfortunate reality that plagues many: poverty, drug addiction, alcoholism, mental illness. Karen Gillan’s first feature as a director, The Party’s Just Beginning, follows its predecessors in confronting its audiences with gritty realism, but Gillan showcases the artistic flair that makes her a talent to watch.
Set in her native Inverness, Gillan stars as Liusaidh (that’s Lucy for you), a 24-year-old living in repetitive limbo. She still lives with her parents, works at the cheese counter in a supermarket, gets smashed every night, and shags the first stranger her eyes fall on. Her bedroom, decorated like a university student’s, indicates that she still lives in the past and there’s a reason for that. The anniversary of the suicide of Liusaidh’s best friend is looming, and his sullen figure haunts her at every turn — these encounters occur most often in the dead of night as she drunkenly stumbles towards the bridge where he took his life. Liusaidh has turned to alcohol as her chosen form of medication for her crippling depression, refusing to obey her mother’s pleas to take her prescribed pills. All of this, paired with a penchant for jarringly fast cuts, can be a bit heavy-handed, but nevertheless the film has its moments of powerful emotional potency. Topped with a stellar and heartbreaking performance from Karen Gillan, it shows that she has real promise as a director. Hopefully, she can find more downtime between juggling franchises to hone in on her talents on the other side of the camera.
Scottish cinema covers similar themes, and the selection is also slim pickings. In my film class, we spent a week on Scottish film, and the lecturer asked us to name some Scottish films. The usual suspects were called — Trainspotting, Braveheart, Whisky Galore — but it was obvious my class didn’t know many. There are certainly more if you look for them (Under the Skin, Red Road, Ratcatcher to name a few) but few linger in our cultural sphere as prominently as Trainspotting. Delving deeper, very few films dare to explore outside the city limits of Edinburgh and Glasgow — Aberdeen has…Aberdeen, Cumbernauld has Gregory’s Girl. And now Inverness has The Party’s Just Beginning. The film does for Inverness what Lady Bird did for Sacramento — except it makes Inverness look like a shithole. Gerwig found the hidden beauty of her hometown, while Gillan exposes the dirty truth.
With its cold cinematography, the film paints Inverness as dreary and lifeless, a place blanketed by death and depression. But Gillan also depicts her hometown as a place of healing. In one of the film’s rare uplifting moments, Liusaidh takes a newly divorced man going through a rough patch of his own (an English accent adorned Lee Pace) to the Munlochy Clootie Well. (The tradition is that if you are ill you should dip a piece of your clothing into the well and tie it to a tree near it.) Liusaidh is far from being healed but the broken pieces are slowly coming together. Gillan might not be kind towards her hometown but she avoids complete hopelessness. It’s this balance of optimism and pessimism that rings true to all of Scotland.
This turned into a reflection on Scotland’s national cinema, so I’m sorry if you were looking for a genuine review. The Party’s Just Beginning is not a masterpiece, but it’s a promising showcase of what Karen Gillan is capable of as an emerging artist. She is more than just a chess piece on Marvel’s giant board; she has confidence behind the camera too, and has a singular vision that signals her becoming one of our future great female directors. God knows, we need more of those.