Review: Happy New Year, Colin Burstead
by Kaleem Aftab
- British director Ben Wheatley revels in a festive family drama in his most conventional film yet
Both in the whip-panning camerawork and the domestic-drama storyline there is an echo of Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme 95 movie Festen in the new film from maverick British auteur Ben Wheatley (A Field in England [+see also:
interview: Ben Wheatley
film profile], Free Fire [+see also:
film profile]). Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, screening in competition at the BFI London Film Festival, starts with documentary-like shots of a plethora of guests – the extended family of tense Colin (Neil Maskell) and various friendly hangers-on – arriving at a heritage mansion where they are going to celebrate the arrival of the New Year together. The huge cast is interconnected through either blood or sexual relations of some sort, so tensions are already sky high before anyone arrives, and old rivalries and splits resurface as soon as the spirits start to flow.
But for all their differences, the one thing that everyone can agree on is that Gini (Hayley Squires) should not have invited the black sheep of the family, David (Sam Riley), to the party. It’s one of Riley’s best performances since he was thrust into the limelight starring in the Ian Curtis biopic Control [+see also:
film profile] (2007), where he met his co-star and now wife Alexandra Maria Lara, who, in a case of art almost imitating life, plays David’s German girlfriend, Hannah. No one in the family has met her in the five years they have been together, such has been David’s expulsion. Riley and Lara are excellent on screen together, as she’s the perfect counterpoint and moral compass whenever David’s twinkling eyes betray evil thoughts. Not everyone is angry with David because he has put his dad (Bill Paterson) in dire financial straights; there’s also his caddish past to contend with.
It’s a nice change of setting and tone for Wheatley, who previously has often leaned towards using violence to create tension and propel his stories forward. He succeeds because the characters and the situation are so familiar, and their moral conundrums, insecurities and actions are all relatable. Away from David, Wheatley delights in giving us glimpses of the broken hearts and jealousies of the guests, although not all of the semi-improvised scenes work, and some characters do seem to get screen time just because they turned up on set. If Wheatley hadn’t also added editing duties to the writing and directing, some characters may well have ended up on the cutting-room floor.
This is Wheatley’s most conventional film to date, which will leave a lot of his fans miffed, such has been his previous record of subversions, but the BBC, which has scheduled this movie for a Christmas slot in the UK, with plans to release it theatrically in other territories, will be delighted with all the familiar genre trappings and the festive cheer.
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