One of the pleasures and difficulties of the holiday season is the social obligation of meeting up with your family, whether you’d like to or not. For some this may be fine, a chance to reunite with people you don’t often get to see, while for others it means having to play nice with characters who frustrate you. For the Bursteads, it’s mostly the latter. Written and directed by Ben Wheatley, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead takes a stripped back, borderline documentarian approach to proceedings.
Taking place during one chaotic family new years party, the film follows Colin Burstead (the always excellent Neil Maskell) as he attempts to keep his family in check during what feels like the longest family party ever - the kind where there’s just two people on the dance floor as others look on from the sides. The film introduces the family tension from the beginning as it jumps between the different branches getting ready to meet up at the country house that’s described as being “like fucking Downton”. As we’re introduced to them, each person airs some sort of apprehension about the other family members. This cross-cutting continues throughout the film, Wheatley often juggling several disasters that unfold simultaneously, and it’s borderline anxiety-inducing.
As Colin, Maskell continues to prove that he’s a master of playing someone utterly fed up with everyone around him. Colin is one of two figures that the film’s conflicts revolve around, as his ostracised brother attempts to join the family again. There’s a series of juxtapositions drawn between the two - the most significant contrast being that one is reluctantly trying to hold things together, the other is breaking things apart out of vengeance. His role in the film invites comparisons to something like Festen and Arrested Development, as an exasperated man tries to keep his larger family from tearing itself apart, while being unaware of his own issues and contributions to that poisonous atmosphere. Further still, he sees himself as being above it all.
References aside, the film does feel incredibly and uncomfortably familiar, like seeing the worst family gathering you’ve ever been to play out in front of your eyes. The film contains all the conflicting ideologies, passive aggression and regular aggression that comes with being forced into a room with people who you are obligated to be civil with. Age old resentments simmer and then bubble over in a cacophony of bitterness and insults that are as vulgar and funny as they are deeply personal.
Wheatley does all he can to escalate this uncomfortable tension throughout, bleeding new, potentially chaotic elements into almost every scene, constantly building anxiety with every minor disaster or conflict, each clearly grating away at whatever little composure Colin has left. Anyone familiar with Wheatley’s oeuvre will stay waiting for the other shoe to drop. Funnily enough, Colin’s family recalls the central one from Kill List, so much so that the anger that Colin clearly has lurking under the surface understandably leads one to wonder when bloody disaster will strike. But, maybe it never does - and that’s fine, as the character work and humour is plenty entertaining on its own. Scored by Clint Mansell’s strange, lute-infused soundtrack, the film almost has the air of a Shakespearean comedy.
Despite dropping his often grim genre trappings, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead instead opts to discomfort with intense, domestic drama. But it’s hilarious too, filled with all the colourful English vulgarity and strange, dry humour that you’d expect from a Ben Wheatley film.