Ben Wheatley revisited: Happy New Year, Colin Burstead (2018)

Happy New Year Colin Burstead
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Our look into the films of Ben Wheatley arrives at 2018 comedy-drama Happy New Year, Colin Burstead… 

After two pictures that fused deliberately acerbic British filmmaking with Hollywood stardom, Ben Wheatley returns to his roots with Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, in some ways a film most reminiscent of his first picture, Down Terrace.

You only have to consider what the original working title was for Wheatley’s film: ‘Colin, You Anus’. When it was announced that Wheatley was producing a brand new picture to be shot over eleven days in a stately home, critics wondered if the director was exploring Shakespeare or the historical period he had so impressed viewers by with A Field In England. Rather than continuing the one-two punch of J G. Ballard adaptation High-Rise or the pulpy, Tarantino-baiting Free Fire, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead sees a return for Wheatley back to stripped down, near documentarian theatrics, the likes of which we haven’t seen him tap for some years.

Where his previous two pictures saw Wheatley rope in Hollywood stars such as Tom Hiddleston, Armie Hammer or Brie Larson, the director here once again recruits the services of Neil Maskell, the lead in Wheatley’s dark, uncompromising and powerfully weird Kill List. Maskell is a prolific British character actor who straddles both TV and cinema, but a traditional leading man he is not, and that makes him perfect for the eponymous Colin Burstead. Wheatley’s film is intentionally short, sharp, darkly acerbic and filmed with even more of a televisual, tele-play lens than even Kill List was.

This is a director cutting loose and having fun, even if he admits to Total Film that the experience was among the most exposing:

I wanted to make something that no one had died in. I hadn’t done anything that didn’t revolve around a murder or someone being bludgeoned to death … But that was the first film where I directed my own script. It was totally terrifying. There’s nowhere to hide.

You sense that Wheatley, despite the fear voiced above, to some degree is at his most comfortable making films such as Happy New Year, Colin Burstead. There is an improvisational free form to this character-based tale of a New Year’s Eve family gathering filled with recriminations, histories, bitter out in the open secrets and personal breakdowns – which Wheatley very clearly encouraged. Indeed, while he is credited with the script, so are the cast in general, suggesting Wheatley gave them a starting point and often allowed the impressive cast of seasoned old and young character actors the chance to breathe and inject their own life into these creations.

There are no real stars in Happy New Year, Colin Burstead which could compromise this free from narrative style. Sam Riley (returning from Free Fire) is perhaps the closest thing to a young matinee idol, having essayed various historical icons including Ian Dury and beat poet Jack Kerouac in previous roles, and despite appearing as the spark which ignites many of the clashes which take place across the story (given he’s the black sheep brother returning to the fold, as a surprise), Riley does not dominate. Even with solid support in the form of actors such as Bill Paterson (returning from High-Rise), Doon Mackickhan and Charles Dance, the heart of the picture remains Maskell’s Colin.

Colin is the one who arranges for his working class family (plus some friends and stragglers) to enjoy NYE inside a lavish stately home as a treat for the matriarch, yet almost nobody in truth seems to want to be there. Colin is the one filled with the biggest frustration with his naive, money-driven father, and his handsome cheat of a younger brother who always seems to fall on his feet. Colin is the one who may feel he has chosen the wrong path, and the wrong woman, in life and is relatively powerless to do anything about it. He is a man on the brink of collapse, mirroring the family in general.

Around him, Wheatley crafts an ensemble. Plenty happens without Colin on screen, even if he drives what does exist of a narrative. Each of Wheatley’s characters have their own moments and inflections; whether its Asim Chaudry’s Sham attempting to cope with the loss of the life he had by facing up to who he is, Hannah Squires’ Gini frustrated at her family’s resistance at putting their demons to bed, after being the one who invites the previously ostracised brother David to proceedings, or Dance’s old Bertie hoping to inform his family that he will likely die in the next year; it is wonderful, incidentally, that he’s a cross dresser and it is not once drawn attention to – he clearly came out a long time ago. He just is, and the family accepts that. Beautiful.

In all of these characters, Wheatley paints a portrait with Happy New Year, Colin Burstead of a family where all of the pain and truth has been laid bare. This isn’t EastEnders, despite the broad ‘Lahndahn’ brogues of some of the cast (which is multi-ethnic and culturally diverse). This is not a story building to terrible revelations or confrontations on the last night of the year. There are arguments, there are broiling emotions, and there is much left unsaid, but Happy New Year, Colin Burstead depicts a family where all of the secrets have already been spoken. They are a family already shattered once we enter the story, they’re just pretending—as many families do—because life has to go on.

This gives Happy New Year, Colin Burstead a satisfying edge even when there does not seem to be much of a plot and Wheatley’s editing appears so quick and frantic as to almost cut characters off mid-sentence. He wants no fat on the bones of this one. It is a canvas, a slice of life on a key date of the year, with no major resolutions. There is one significant beat of Wheatley-esque, bitter catharsis and it comes from Colin, and it may not be anything you expect. The ending disguises a deep well of anger and misery with a veneer of hope and you’ll be hard pushed to come out the other end of Wheatley’s film believing one night of facing the past can stitch everything together neatly for the future.

Interestingly, going back to the Shakespeare suggestions at the top of this piece, Wheatley told Irish News that certain inspirations for Happy New Year, Colin Burstead do lie in the Bard:

It came from seeing Tom Hiddleston in Corialanus. I really enjoyed it even though it was such an odd story to me. It’s not typical to our modern structure or even the structure of other Shakespeare plays. It’s not ‘rise and fall’ – the main character sets out to do something and does it, then all the others turn on him because he’s won. I thought that was kind of an interesting upside down version of the ‘hero’s journey’. I started breaking the play down into pieces, one sentence per scene, and then built it back up as Happy New Year, Colin Burstead. So underneath the bonnet of it is Shakespeare, although it probably wouldn’t stand up to academic scrutiny!

This is key to understanding Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, because it may exist as a picture that on first blush is hard to like, and even downright wilfully bleak in its depiction of modern life and family.

In fact, it reflects Ben Wheatley as a writer and director. None of his films feature conventional protagonists, as we have seen. Maskell’s Jay in Kill List is a vicious, verbose assassin. Alice Lowe and Steve Oram in Sightseers are both cheery psychopaths with no moral centre. The aforementioned Hiddleston in High-Rise is a doctor who gives himself over to an abhorrent symbol of emerging neoliberalism. Wheatley’s episodes of Doctor Who, charged with introducing Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor, sees him depict a character who, as a raging old man, immediately questions his own moral virtue, in a manner uncharacteristic even of Steven Moffat’s previous work on the series.

Wheatley looking to ape the structure of Coriolanus, studying the atypical flip side of the stock Campbellian hero’s journey, is typified in what happens to Colin Burstead across what is otherwise a low budget, at one point even fourth wall breaking picture (Wheatley appears dancing with the characters in the end credits). Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is perhaps an experimental indulgence by a filmmaker who has reached a point where success has given him the scope to quickly make an ensemble character study on the fly, designed to reverse-engineer an inverse look at the stock hero’s journey.

In that sense, while Happy New Year, Colin Burstead may not either be a great film or a great Ben Wheatley film, what he continued to learn through the process of making it help continue to place him as one of Britain’s most difficult to place auteurs. What he does next, swinging for the classic fences, adds weight to that argument.

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