After two big-budget projects resplendent with Hollywood stars, Ben Wheatley has returned to his roots for his latest outing, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead (previously known as Colin You Anus), casting old friend Neil Maskell at the centre of his family-focused dramedy. The pair last worked together on the JG Ballard adaptation High-Rise, but die-hard Wheatley fans will primarily recognise Maskell for his lead turn in 2011’s Kill List. His role in Colin Burstead really couldn’t be more different, and indeed Wheatley’s film feels quite apart from anything else he’s done before.
Predominantly set in a posh rented house somewhere in Dorset, the film focuses on the Burstead family, particularly the titular Colin, who’s hired the venue to see in the New Year. The ensemble cast includes some familiar faces, including Hayley Squires as Colin’s sister Gini, and Charles Dance as eccentric Uncle Bertie. It quickly becomes apparent that everyone is dreading the arrival of estranged younger brother David (Sam Riley), who hasn’t seen his family for five years after cheating on his wife Paula.
There’s more than a hint of Shakespearian drama about the plot, amplified by Clint Mansell’s quasi-medieval score, and the sharp dialogue delivered by the cast (who also helped Wheatley with the script). With 18 prominent characters, it does feel a little overstuffed, but this claustrophobia might be all too familiar to those who have navigated an arduous family gathering before. Here’s the real kicker: this Ben Wheatley joint is all very normal. The arguments the Bursteads and their assembled guests have are cosy and trivial – the sort of things people tend to bicker about during the holidays: Brexit, money, ex-partners, jobs. Gone are the twisted, gritty flourishes and macabre themes – instead there’s a lot of crying, in-fighting and a strange sense of melancholy.
Yet it’s a refreshing change of scenery in some ways, and Wheatley plays with our expectation that something might kick off at any moment. The documentary-style handheld camerawork also adds to the feeling of being very much a part of the Burstead clan, warts and all. There are obvious parallels between this and Thomas Vinterberg’s party-based 1998 drama Festen, but perhaps a more apt comparison is Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, or even the peerless Royal Family Christmas specials. Wheatley captures the volatility of emotions during the festive period, where every familial anxiety seems to come to a head, and does so with compassion and humour. The end credits sequence in particular feels like something quite special, but those more inclined towards Wheatley’s more audacious work might struggle to connect with this change of tone and pace. For skeptics, maybe this is the Wheatley film that will change your mind.