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Best known for darkly comic thrillers with high body counts, most recently the all-star bloodbath Free Fire, British writer-director Ben Wheatley moves into more emotionally nuanced terrain with Happy New Year, Colin Burstead. Featuring a large ensemble cast of mostly British faces, this dysfunctional family drama is a departure in tone but not in style, returning Wheatley to his lo-fi social-realist roots. Shot on a shaky handheld camera, with a talk-heavy script written in collaboration between director and cast, the story takes place at a fraught gathering on New Year’s Eve, when ancient feuds and festering wounds come bubbling to the surface. If Mike Leigh were to remake Tomas Vinterberg’s Festen, it might feel something like this.
Originally teased with the droll but less marketable title Colin You Anus, Wheatley’s sporadically amusing semi-farce has a lively rhythm and some fine performances, but the baggy screenplay never delivers the emotional grace notes and knockout revelations it promises. World premiered today in the London Film Festival’s main competition section, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is set for a limited U.K. theatrical run in the autumn ahead of its small-screen launch on BBC television over the festive season. It will then remain available on the BBC’s on-demand iPlayer platform for a full year while Wheatley develops a spinoff TV series featuring the same characters. London-based indie outfit Goalpost Film is handling global sales.
Wheatley regular Neil Maskell plays the titular Colin, a stressed fortysomething father who has rented a castle-like mansion in an English coastal town so that his scattered family can spend New Year’s Eve together. Unbeknownst to the other revelers, Colin’s sister Gini (Hayley Squires) has invited their long-estranged brother David (Sam Riley), the womanizing black sheep of the family, who left his wife and young children five years before. Since nobody in the family appears to have forgiven David, Gini’s ill-conceived unilateral olive branch feels like the first of many illogical dramatic contrivances.
Now living in Germany wih his glamorous new partner Hannah (Alexandra Maria Lara, Riley’s real, offscreen wife), fork-tongued charmer David is clearly Bad News. But he does at least make a partial attempt to heal old family wounds, performing a corny apology song to his long-suffering mother Sandy (Doon Mackichan) and offering a life-saving loan to his deadbeat bankrupt dad, Gordon (Bill Paterson). But seeing David cautiously welcomed back into the fold as the returning prodigal son is too much for Colin, who has his own unresolved issues with his suave, haughty sibling. An explosive showdown between the brothers becomes inevitable.
Wheatley is working from a very familiar dramatic blueprint in Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, that of the fractious family gathering shaken by long-buried secrets. But whereas he once playfully subverted and rebooted genres in earlier films like Kill List and Sightseers, here he sticks comfortably within soapy dramedy conventions. There is nothing wrong with a well-crafted traditional farce, of course, but the director has scant room here to showcase his natural flair for savage comedy and queasy domestic horror.
Disappointingly, the party’s climactic shock revelations are not particularly dramatic or surprising. They also get a little lost in a cacophony of unresolved subplots and sketchy secondary characters: an elderly cross-dressing uncle with a terminal illness (Charles Dance), a newly unemployed friend who is toying with suicide (Asim Chaudhry), a bumbling aristocrat living an impoverished double life (Richard Glover) and so on. The chemistry between the core protagonists also lacks plausibility. Far from interacting like members of the same family, they appear to be virtual strangers, with their wildly diverse regional accents and minimal physical resemblance.
Performances are naturalistic and strong, especially Maskell’s, who can suggest pressure-cooker intensity with just the puff of a cigarette. DOP Laurie Rose gives the film a nervy, restless, handheld look which is deceptively artful in its artlessness, while Wheatley’s own punchy edit keeps energy levels up with jagged jump cuts and tight pacing. Clint Mansell’s sparsely deployed, folk-tinged score also lends an extra layer of tender lyricism. Plenty of classy ingredients here, but Wheatley’s tentative first foray into the realm of adult drama is not the heart-bruising emotional assault course it could have been.
Venue: London Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Rook Films. BBC Films
Cast: Neil Maskell, Sam Riley, Joe Cole, Mark Monero, Charles Dance, Hayley Squires, Asim Chaudhry, Doon Mackichan, Bill Paterson, Sarah Baxendale, Sudha Bhuchar, Sura Dohnke, Vincent Ebrahim, Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Alexandra Maria Lara
Director, screenwriter, editor: Ben Wheatley
Cinematographer: Laurie Rose
Producer: Andy Starke
Music: Clint Mansell
Sales company: Goalpost Film
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