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Ben Wheatley’s Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is a hothouse flower of misery, sprouting dozens of resentment-buds under artificially controlled conditions. It is a tense ensemble drama, with intriguing echoes of Alan Ayckbourn and Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen; Laurie Rose’s handheld camerawork is intimate and dynamic, and it is written by Wheatley himself with contributions from a really strong cast.
First among equals is the excellent Neil Maskell, who appeared in Wheatley’s 2011 breakthrough, the horror nightmare Kill List. Working with Wheatley, Maskell proved he is so much more than the geezer roles in which our industry might otherwise have confined him, and I almost wonder if, just as Leonardo DiCaprio is thought to be the acting-avatar of Christopher Nolan, and Johnny Depp the projection of Tim Burton, so Maskell might come to be thought of as Wheatley’s own onscreen alter ego, a Mr Hyde to his Dr Jekyll: sceptical, alienated, pulsating with controlled energy.
Every minute of this film has something of interest, every frame is well composed. And yet I admit I found there was something a bit contrived and unreal about it, like an epic improv session. Maskell is Colin Burstead himself, a stressed middle-aged bloke who has decided for complex, ambiguous reasons to host a big New Year’s eve party for his extended family at a rented country house. He keeps piously talking about the importance of “family”, but with a face like thunder, as if this is trying his saintly patience.
Colin’s parents are there, played by Bill Paterson and Doon Mackichan, and from the very first there is trouble. Both radiate victimised dissatisfaction. Colin’s dad has apparently borrowed money from Colin for some doomed business venture and now wants to borrow more. On arriving at the party, his mum semi-intentionally trips over the front step on her way into the poundshop Downton that Colin has hired for the event and has to be whimperingly conveyed around in a wheelchair from then on. Maskell’s utterly unsympathetic face is very funny.
Other relatives and friends show up, like malevolent courtiers and plotters in some bizarre 21st century version of Wolf Hall: played among others by Hayley Squires, Charles Dance, Asim Chaudry, Mark Monero and Sarah Baxendale. Yet one thing threatens to upend whatever slender chance the party had of going off smoothly. Colin’s sister Gini (Squires) has gone ahead and behind Colin’s back invited the very person that he wanted to exclude: the black-sheep brother David whom Colin hasn’t seen for five years, played by Sam Riley.
This love-rat brother has angered and broken the hearts of some of people there, and – an exquisite refinement of family agony – he too has loaned money to their profligate and incompetent dad, more money than Colin it seems, so there are toxic and masochistic elements of rivalry. There is no way that this could not all mightily kick off; and kick off it duly does.
Scene by scene, this film is simmering with a crackling atmosphere of impending doom, and it isn’t long before it does more than impend. Yet the most pointed moments involve Riley’s David, who has arrived with his partner, elegantly played by Alexandra Maria Lara. I was never entirely convinced that Colin and David’s confrontation really meant something, or that the drama was really going anywhere. But the performances are all great; they collectively create a directionless storm-cloud of disquiet.
Source: The Guardian
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