Film Review: Happy New Year, Colin Burstead (2018)

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Ben Wheatley’s back to his old tricks again, turning Red Bull into wine with this searing family drama framed like the last act of a folk horror.

It’s really not worth spending the first two-thirds of Happy New Year, Colin Burstead waiting for something dark and bloody to happen. Yes, Wheatley’s proven himself the master of the rug-pull (7 years on and Kill List still hurts), and yes the ever-sinister Neil Maskell is the lead, but I’m telling you right here and right now that no matter how off-kilter it all feels, plot-wise, it’s straight up. No Wicker-Man cults or last minute orgies. Just people shouting at other people. And it’s all the better for it.

Wheatley might be one of British cinema’s most prolific directors. Since showing up on the Brit-cinema scene back in 2009 with low-rent gangster hit Down Terrace, he’s made seven fully-fledged features, each as culty and refreshingly bonkers as the last. And thankfully, as is the trend, Colin Burstead is a totally different animal to the last: a cheap, simply-staged but massively tense family affair that finds all its old-school horror and nastiness in the situations themselves, and a spot of break-neck editing.

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Neil Maskell is Colin, a permanently bothered dad, son, husband and brother who just wants to do something nice for his overly large extended family at New Year. So he rents out a swanky manor house in Dorset and brings the whole Burstead clan together. The only problem being that his tricky sister (Hayley Squires) has invited their even trickier brother (Sam Riley) as a surprise, that sets off a never-ending shitstorm of fireworks.

And as fast-paced and deliciously foul-mouthed as the scripted family barmy is (the original title, Colin You Anus, feels totally apt), the heart and soul of the Burstead’s new year bust-up is the actors, and the whole set-up itself. Wheatley and co. are basically going Dogme 95 here, stripping the whole production back to the bare essentials; a big house, two cameras, and a who’s who of Britain’s best acting talent.

All of the drama, the horror and the playful unease is built entirely from the fundamentals alone: whip-fast camera-work, vicious, natural performances (Charles Dance as the struggling uncle is a heartbreaking highlight) and an edit with an eye for the extreme; tossing and turning each tiny dig and full-on fallout into a total blast of pure, British vitriol. It’s exactly what you’d expect from someone with Wheatley’s background going back to the kitchen-sink basics; Abigail’s Party made by Nicolas Roeg.

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It might not be as much of a smoking gun as a High-Rise or a Free Fire, and it’s all but lacking in bells and whistles, but Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is just as savage and confident as the best of Wheatley’s efforts to date. If anything, it’s the director at the height of his no-bullshit powers, proving that he can still whack out a totally original and impressively moody piece of work without the budget or production.

Ben Wheatley’s a filmmaker that’s never going to be happy sitting on his hands, waiting for the next “big thing” to come together, and he never seems restrained or restricted by what the local industry has on offer. And Colin Burstead proves that even when they’re just messing around in a big house with some friends for a few weeks, Wheatley and his team (collaborator/partner Amy Jump and DoP Laurie Rose included) are frankly the best of the Brit bunch right now, and their powers apparently know no bounds.

Happy New Year, Colin Burstead premiered as part of BFI London Film Festival 2018.

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