Ben Wheatley is one of the most interesting directors in Britain today. That’s partly thanks to his choice of material – a bleak slice of horror mixed with an even bleaker slice of dark humour, applied to every genre from action (Free Fire) and Western (A Field in England) to social satire (High-Fire) – and partly thanks to his innovative attitude towards distribution. Years on from A Field in England premiering in cinemas and on VOD and on TV on the same date, his latest arrives on BBC iPlayer this Christmas, following a tour of UK cinemas. While Wheatley’s taste for groundbreaking releases is still strong, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is less notable in terms of its shock value: Wheatley dials back his usual bloody streak for a more sedate family drama. But although there’s less physical violence on screen, there’s verbal violence aplenty.
Neil Maskell leads a superb ensemble cast as Colin, a husband and father who rents a country home for New Year’s Eve, where he plans to celebrate with the family. When his estranged brother, David (Sam Riley), is unexpectedly invited, though, things take a turn for the awkward. David, we learn, was last seen by any of them five years ago, when he cheated on his wife, Paula (Sarah Baxendale). She, of course, is also in attendance, as his David’s straight-talking new wife, Hannah (Alexandra Maria Lara). But that painful clash of personalities, feelings and grudges is only one of many messy collisions: before things even get underway, Colin has already been dragged aside by his drunken father, Gordon (Bill Paterson), who wants to borrow money to clear off yet more debts. Also in the building are Colin’s sister, Gini (Hayley Squires), who invited David and increasingly regrets her decision. And, to cap it off, there’s the caterer, Lainey (Sinead Matthews), who just happens to be Colin’s ex. No wonder, then, that his wife, Val (Sura Dohnke) spends the evening trying to keep out of the whole thing.
Wheatley is no stranger to cutting dialogue or laughs that slice through social normalities with a searing wit, and both are on brutal display, as the cast sink their teeth into cruel exchanges, foul-mouthed insults, bitter banter and seething silences. Even when it feels like there are too many people for the script to juggle, the cast make each member of the ensemble feel rounded and fully formed; Charles Dance brings nuance and sympathy to his eccentric Uncle Bertie, who has a surprisingly sentimental streak, while Asim Chaudhry is brilliantly deadpan as Sham, an uninvited family friend who mostly puts his energy towards hitting on the uninterested Lainey. In between it all, Richard Glover quietly steals scenes as the wealthy, bemused homeowner who has apparently rented out his estate to this messy, complicated bunch.
Watching each one react in their own unique ways to every new drama that bubbles to the surface is horribly engrossing, accompanied by Clint Mansell’s baroque score, which descends from austere chamber vibes into angry, electronic-tinged discord. By the time it erupts into a full-on party, the result is weirdly uplifting, even as things become strangely self-aware. The result is the ideal thing (not) to view with your family (not the kids) this festive season, as it picks apart relationships and dynamics with a caustic realism. It might not be hugely revolutionary and plays softer and more accessible than much of Wheatley’s work, but you’ll cringe and wince in pain nonetheless. It’s no surprise that the director is currently working on a TV series based around these characters and while that makes this more of a feature-length pilot than a traditional movie, it’s a cinematic ride that brings handheld immediacy to claustrophobic conflict. From dodgy disco sets to unrequited romance, this is wickedly entertaining.
Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is available on BBC iPlayer until 29th January 2019.