Prove your humanity

In a year where it feels like a new superhero film is coming out every month, it’s refreshing to sit down and watch a film where there’s just a lot of people arguing in a country manor for most the run-time. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a film that has tapped into a universal truth and struggle; but that’s what Happy New Year, Colin Burstead does. That universal truth: sometimes family gatherings can be extremely painful.

Writer-director Ben Wheatley is a filmmaker who has dabbled in a wide variety of genres, from the action-comedy Free Fire, the dystopian drama High Rise, to the psychological horror Kill List, he’s a filmmaker who isn’t afraid to experiment. With Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, he strips back the genre influences of much of his previous work and delivers something far simpler in construction. However, I will say, I do wish it stuck with its original title, Colin You Anus.

We follow Colin Burstead (Neil Maskell) as he rents out a country manor for his extended family to celebrate the New Year in. When Colin’s estranged brother David (Sam Riley) arrives without his knowing, tensions arise, drama ensues and pent-up anger is released in ways only possible in the holiday season.

What Ben Wheatley does as a writer is maximise the comic and dramatic potential of the painful difficulties of family gatherings around the holiday season. Every bit of faux happiness between this family, every awkward exchange, every over-dramatic gesture and every outburst has extreme heft—whether it be on a dramatic or comedic level. Some of the film’s most potent comedy comes from Doon Mackichan, who plays Colin’s mother Sandy. After an accident at the front door of the castle which results in extreme pain, Sandy demands a wheelchair and never forgets to addle up the pain she’s experiencing to the family around her—even if it’s definitely not as serious as she lets on. This creates some entertaining physical comedy, tapping into that hilarious archetype of the person who’s never afraid to over-dramatise their current circumstances.

Wheatley can derive some solid physical comedy, but where the film really delivers is on its comedic potential in Wheatley’s razor-edged script—and believe me, a lot of people get cut. The bullets in his last film, Free Fire, may have flown at a rapid pace, but it’s the words which fly just as swiftly here. No one is immune to a passive aggressive outburst—or more frequently—a blatantly aggressive outburst. Wheatley isn’t a filmmaker who wants to make this family gathering wacky and upbeat. With its rapid editing between characters and their respective conversations, along with the intimacy Wheatley creates with his documentary-like direction, we get the feeling as a viewer of being a fly on the wall. We can see the chaos unfold before our eyes.

Happy New Year, Colin Burstead isn’t trying to be nice film. In fact—and this is not a blight on the film—it’s very nasty. Despite being held in a Dorset manor, there’s nothing lush or relaxing about anything that unfolds. The whole film feels chaotic in its construction—and that’s deliberate. As Wheatley cuts from conversation to conversation and character to character, we’re never as viewers given a chance to breathe and fully connect with one person or relationship—almost like an actual family gathering. We are just the party guest who can’t find a person to connect with, yet we must watch on in horror as turmoil erupts. Even Clint Mansell’s score feels ominous throughout, making it feel like something is about to go down—which it so often does.

Much of the film’s conflict surrounds Colin and David—his more reckless and charming brother who’s been extricated out of the family for five years for reasons which become clearer as the night rolls on. While the film does have that darkly humorous edge in its dialogue, these dramatic beats between Colin and David work because of how Wheatley maintains a sinister tone throughout, along with Neil Maskell and Sam Riley delivering great performances. Riley is fantastic at being the counterpoint to Maskell’s constantly frustrated persona. You can still understand David’s perspective as a character even though his somewhat arrogant nature seeps under your skin. Wheatley favours realism in every one of the character’s interactions. Sometimes one person appears to be the villain in one conversation, only for you to completely understand their perspective in the next.

This is a family who doesn’t have set dynamics and ultra-heightened characters. I would argue that some characters are far more attention grabbing than others, but I almost think this could be a deliberate choice by Wheatley. Unfortunately, despite how many films—particularly American ones—accentuate the idea that nearly every member of every family has quirks and a noticeable personality, leave it to a filmmaker like Wheatley to deliver some classic British dourness. It’s a film which I weirdly feel would only work as the nasty family dramedy it is if it was British. Yes, a brilliant show like Arrested Development deals with a dysfunctional family and a leader trying to control it all, but this has a far drearier, tension-filled and sinister edge.

Despite being only 95 minutes, it almost wears out its run-time. As the film is largely set in one location and we go from often unconnected conversations and conflicts, there can be an unconscious feeling of drag despite its brisk length. Not every character beat and arc gets the strong focus it could’ve, but Wheatley’s conviction into delivering stark realism and his penchant for the sharpest of zingers keeps the film engaging. Wheatley has also been writing an extended TV series featuring these characters, which doesn’t surprise me considering the film feels like an extended TV pilot at times. I’m happy to watch more chaos.

And with Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, it’s exactly that—chaotic. This is not a fun comedy, not at all. It’s like watching the worst, most cringe worthy, most painful family gathering take place right before your eyes. It’s a train wreck of a gathering, but just like a train wreck, despite the destruction which has taken place, it’s impossible to take your eyes off it. So, if you think your family gatherings are bad, they might not be as tragic as you think.

Happy New Year, Colin Burstead played at this year’s Revelation Film Festival.