LFF review: I could have watched ‘Happy New Year, Colin Burstead’ for hours
12 October 2018 08:00
The premise for Ben Wheatley’s seventh feature film, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, is a simple one: a large family assembles in a rented stately home to celebrate New Year together. Love it or loathe it, the clan get-together is a set-up we’re all familiar with, and one that’s ripe for emotional fireworks. Colin (Neil Maskell) is in charge. He’s the one’s who’s rented the house, and thus it’s him who bears the brunt of the responsibility for the evening’s success – from tracking down a replacement music system when the disco he’s hired cancels at the last minute, to making sure everyone’s got enough to drink – but his task becomes significantly harder when his estranged brother David (Sam Riley) arrives on the scene. This, we learn, is David’s first appearance after a five-year absence. In a moment of goodwill, his and Colin’s sister Gini (Hayley Squires) extended the invitation. In reality, Gini doesn’t want David there any more than Colin does, but she invited him for their mum’s sake – she knows the difference between doing what one wants and doing what’s right.
That the evening ends in a series of explosive encounters hardly comes as a surprise. It’s easy to see them coming a mile off. But this doesn’t detract from the film’s charm. Wheatley’s gathered together the most brilliant ensemble cast – most notable, and joining those already mentioned above, are Bill Paterson, Doon Mackichan, Charles Dance, Asim Chaudhry, Joe Cole, Mark Monroe and Sarah Baxendale – and the film is at its finest during the first two-thirds, before the evening’s festivities really kick off. The moaning between partners about having been given the rubbish room; Uncle Bertie griping about the car journey; the moody teenager skulking round the garden; everyone sneaking stiff drinks to steel themselves for the night ahead; the mum who’s only happy when she’s the centre of attention, everyone fussing around her. These scenes are genius – I honestly could have watched them for hours. The script was officially penned by Wheatley, but the mention of ‘additional material’ in the credits just confirmed my suspicion that a fair amount of these early scenes were improvised, and pitch perfectly so. Indeed, it’s all so organic, it felt a little like watching a documentary, but Wheatley takes the edge off this rawness with some careful splicing of scenes – all in the service of illustrating shifting family allegiances – which ensures we’re privy to interactions between different actors playing out in parallel.
Cinematographer Laurie Rose’s claustrophobic shooting replicates the sense of creeping up on people around corners, or peering into rooms one shouldn’t. Wheatley hints at class commentary – the ‘lord of the manor’ (Richard Glover) has been reduced to a put-upon, harassed caretaker, while the ‘plebs’, as Gini jokingly puts it, have the run of the place – but there’s no detracting from the main event. The same goes for what Wheatley’s trying to say about familial love. The film has its sentimental moments, but they’re not laboured. At heart, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is a vehicle for its actors’ considerable talents. It’s also that rare feature that gives the impression that the entire cast and crew had an absolute ball making it together.