Review: Happy New Year, Colin Burstead

Ben Wheatley offers an absurdly realistic look at family engagements in his latest film ‘Happy New Year, Colin Burstead’.

The film follows the Burstead family as Colin, played by Ben Wheatley regular Neil Maskell, rents a stately home to host his extended family for a New Years Eve bash to be remembered. As expected with Ben, chaos soon ensues.

We watch on, thanks to Laurie Strode’s fantastic handheld camerawork, like a guest at the party as the slow-burning drama unfolds.

The first guest to stoke the fire is Colin’s sister Gini (Hayley Squires), who invites estranged brother David (Sam Riley) to the proceedings, much to the displeasure of seemingly everyone else at the party.

Every time his name is mentioned it seems to be like a stab to the heart, especially to mother and father (Doon Mackichan) and Gordon (Bill Paterson) – to whom it is revealed he has leant large sums of money.

Sam Riley is fantastic as David, with his scratchy voice and deep-dark eyes giving his character a further aura of ambiguity when he finally arrives at the party.

His partner in the film (and real life) Hannah (Alexandra Maria Lara) is even unsure of him after five years together.

They’re not the only meta relationship in the film, Colin and his partner Val (Sura Dohnke) are also together in real life, and their baby in the film is actually theirs. This helps the film massively in presenting real family dynamics on an emotional level.

Whilst this may be a step away from Ben’s previous work with its less violent and more familial tone, Neil Maskell plays Colin with a simmering undercurrent of potentially explosive violence.

He seems ready to implode at any moment, and this tension is raised fantastically by Clint Mansell’s score.

The “Elizabethan meets Eno” tunes add pace to the film each time they arise, pushing the plot forwards and adding a palpable tension to what would otherwise seem innocuous dialogue.

The score is described by Ben himself at a Q&A at HOME, Manchester as giving “the family some historical oomph”, a task it achieves with flying colours.

Ben furthered this, saying that “all our families have kings and queens and dukes and lords” – and it’s easy to see that this is true of the Burstead’s.

Queen Sandy is wheeled around and pampered over after a melodramatic fall in the first act. As for King Gordon, he’s losing his grip on the throne, with deceptive Prince David playing Machiavellian tricks on him throughout, forcing Prince Colin to interject.

However, this isn’t a Hollywood film in which everyone is clearly either a hero or a villain, Ben says that the “people are good and bad at the same time, and they hate each other and love each other at the same time” – much like in a real family.

Each line of dialogue unfolds a different furrow and changes the audiences opinion on that character slightly, no one is irredeemably evil and no one’s halo stays in tact.

The film isn’t all doom and gloom, as Ben peppers otherwise moody scenes with his trademark dark humour.

Acting royalty Charles Dance acts as the jester for the evening, playing the trademark weird uncle. But it’s the throwaway lines, like Joe Cole replying to his Dad: “You’ve been on the f*cking internet again ain’t ya?” or Gini telling David: “When I look at you, I do just think c**t’” which give the film its personality.

Some of these funnier characters are given a criminally short amount of time on screen, with Asim Chaudry, Joe Cole and Richard Glover all giving great performances in relatively minor parts, which could perhaps do with more attention.

Despite the absence of death, machine guns and 70s suits, this film isn’t too far departed from Wheatley’s previous effort Free Fire. Both take place in enclosed spaces and utilise fantastic ensemble casts.

Ben says that the screenplay is the bare bones of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, hence the original title for the film of ‘Colin You Anus’ – changed after “every f*cker” was saying no one would go and see it, including his wife.

“I basically got the script and reduced every scene down to one line,” said Ben, explaining his process for adapting Shakespeare.

“So where a group would be exiled to another country, people would go to the pub, or if someone was murdered they’d have a snippy comment said to them and skulk off. It’s just reducing everything down to a more family scale.”

Ben joked that this is his attempt at Mike Leigh (“The next film’s called Porter-Loo”) but later insists his influences aren’t intentionally put in.

“I make the film and then at the end of it go ‘Fuck it’s like that, that and that, oh bollocks’.”

Whilst this 95-minutes tackles Coriolanus, Ben reveals he’s coming back to Shakespeare again and has written half a script for an extended TV series with the same characters, except this time he’ll be tackling Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth.

Wheatley’s seventh feature is another notch on his diverse and masterful belt, and can sit proudly alongside his last two big budget flicks.

Ben will be returning to our screens soon with his adaption of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, starring Armie Hammer and Lily James, which starts shooting at the end of May 2019.

Happy New Year, Colin Burstead will be screening on BBC2 over the Christmas holidays.

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