Ben Wheatley has made some pretty serious waves in British cinema in recent years, springing to our attention with the wonderfully understated Kill List and Sightseers, and cementing his place as one of the most intriguing creative talents around with bigger-budget High Rise and Free Fire. While Wheatley has grown in status, one thing has always remained the same: his desire to delve into areas of dark that most would be lacking in confidence to explore. It’s pretty fitting then, that a director this bold would announce the production of a film titled, Colin, You Anus. Much to the disappointment of pretty much everyone on the planet, this title didn’t stick around for long and was replaced with a final title complete with a very irritating full stop; however, the film that follows, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead., is another quintessentially Wheatley-esque work in tone.
Happy New Year, Colin Burstead. centres around typical British bloke Colin (Neil Maskell). On edge from the get go, nothing seems to be going right for poor Colin, as he hires out a country manor for his extended family’s New Year celebrations only to discover that his sister (Hayley Squires) has invited their estranged love-rat brother, David (the superb Sam Riley) – what a way to kill the party. With the Burstead family arriving far and wide and family financial matters clouding proceedings, the film’s premise at first seems more like an episode of Eastenders. But this is a Ben Wheatley film after all, and as the illusive David finally arrives, matters quite literally take a plunge into darkness, with every awkward reunion having the potential to boil over at any minute. In fact, the film’s greatest success is the way it manages to feel so incredibly violent without a single drop of blood, with the worst that happens to any of the characters being a nasty trip on the porch step. The hammers of Kill List are worlds away here; instead, we’re put on edge by thumping techno beats and euphoric disco lights, and the result is a film that is surprisingly as unnerving as Wheatley’s work in the horror genre.
Happy New Year, Colin Burstead. toys with our genre expectations in more ways than one. At times, it would almost be fitting to describe the film as a comedy, with classic British wit and morbid sarcasm expertly added by a stellar supporting cast. The comical stand-out is Asim Chaudhry; fresh from his acclaimed role in BAFTA-winning People Just Do Nothing, he manages to draw a laugh practically every time he speaks, simultaneously reminding us that trouble is looming as well as the start of the New Year as the narrative progresses and we learn that his laughter is a sad front to cover some pretty pressing inner demons. He’s not the only character that seems to be struggling, and somehow Wheatley manages to juggle them all well. A little more of Charles Dance’s endearing Bertie and a little less of Doon Mackichan’s insufferable Sandy wouldn’t go a-miss, but our desperation to get Sandy off-screen is a testament to Wheatley’s writing more than anything – he expertly executes the art of crafting a character who’s annoying through and through. Best of all, the aforementioned Maskell as Colin is a real joy to watch. With a constantly pained expression and his fists always clenched, Colin is an anus, but he’s also a pretty nice guy at heart and Maskell manages to get us to care for, worry for, and detest Colin all within the space of 90 minutes.
Laurie Rose’s cinematography heightens all of these performances, as the camera bubbles along with the tension, constantly flitting between private moments, lulling on the initially mundane, and then lingering until something blows. The effect of such a technique are both impressive and intimate; we feel like a welcome guest of the Burstead family at certain moments, a nervous intruder at others, worried that we too will become embroiled in Colin and David’s heated discussion. At points, the heightened atmosphere becomes a little too overbearing, and much like the Burstead’s are no perfect family, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead. is not a perfect film. Rather, Ben Wheatley’s latest is another dive into the unnerving depths of raw emotions and people at their very worst. And dive he does with much success, the detour from violence and turn towards a more performance-driven approach offering a refreshing new direction for the continually exciting British talent.
Happy New Year, Colin Burstead. (2018), directed by Ben Wheatley, premiered worldwide at this year’s BFI London Film Festival.