The Dogme 95 classic Festen, with its pent up angst and trauma coming to the boil over a family's grand reunion, has always felt right for the festive season because that's arguably a time when familial friction often takes place. Here, Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump return to their mutual fascination with the Alan Ayckbourn and Mike Leigh style domestic disharmony that was previously glimpsed in earlier outings like Down Terrace and Kill List to deliver a very unique film in their oeuvre that foregoes the shock and gore they're perhaps commonly associated with.
In my Letterboxd review of Wheatley's previous film Free Fire, I stated that his protagonists, for better or worse, seem to exist solely for the duration of the movies they appear in (which makes him the perfect auteur to approach a remake of The Wages of Fear, mooted for release in the next year or so). But in Happy New Year, Colin Burstead they create an ensemble of characters who, perhaps unique to the protagonists in their previous films, genuinely feel like they exist outside of the 95 minutes we spend with them. They have a believable backstory, lives and a future and, as a result, this is a Ben Wheatley film with a surprising degree of warmth and heart, which is arguably a first let's face it.
The premise is a simple one, Colin Burstead (Wheatley regular Neil Maskell, always better than the generic cockney stereotype he seems to be saddled with in everything else) has decided to rent a country house owned by mild mannered and broke Lord Cumberland (Richard Glover) to throw a big New Year's party for his extended family and various friends. Society tells us that the Christmas and New Year season is a time for family and goodwill, but reality tells us that such sanitized Christmas card perfection is a myth and this ugly truth is ably depicted here. Colin's father, Gordon (Bill Paterson) is, despite his respectable demeanor, a financial liability, his mother Sandy (Doon Mackichan) is a drama queen who seemingly deliberately injures herself within moments of arriving, and his younger sister Gini (I, Daniel Blake's Hayley Squires) has, unbeknownst to everyone, invited the black sheep of the family, their brother Dave (Sam Riley), a man who has seemingly broken the hearts of many in attendance and loaned his father even more money than Colin. From there, a toxic mixture of resentment and rivalry develops that turns Colin rather believably from hero to anti-hero in that way that no domestic squabble is ever truly black and white.
Throw into this mix the likes of Charles Dance as the cross-dressing Uncle Bertie (a man whose proclivities are refreshingly not really discussed, he's simply accepted), Peter Ferdinando and Joe Cole as a father and son, Asim Chaudry as a family friend and then there's Sarah Baxendale, Sinead Matthews (who Wheatley had worked with on the excellent BBC3 sitcom Ideal) and Sura Dohnke as Colin's wife, who will all prove to have previous romantic entanglements with some of those assembled, and you have much to attract your attention. There's even Mark Monero, formerly of EastEnders and previously briefly seen in Free Fire; and thank God Wheatley has rediscovered him.
Apparently, Wheatley was inspired to make this film after seeing Tom Hiddleston, his High-Rise star, in Coriolanus. Having found Shakespeare's play complex, he decided to look at the plot and reduce it to its core components and translate it to a modern day setting, this becoming the end result - and the reason why it was originally called Colin, You Anus, meaning I'm perhaps not so immature after all eh? Clint Mansell's medieval score suggests such an inspiration but this is undoubtedly a twenty-first century piece, and a uniquely British modern day piece to boot. There are a couple of Brexit references within Jump's screenplay that suggest a political reading but, even if it hadn't had them, I think this would still one day be mentioned as a Brexit movie in the same breath as Hope Dickson Leach's The Levelling.
I have a feeling that Happy New Year, Colin Burstead will, like most Wheatley films for me, be a grower. I've come a long way with Wheatley; from hating everything he did until Sightseers and then deciding that my love of that must be down to Alice Lowe and Steve Oram's screenplay. But no, I was then blindsided by A Field In England and everything since has been truly exceptional. I feel I need to revisit the likes of Down Terrace now, but a rewatch of this is probably more likely in the very near future.