Ben Wheatley’s ‘Happy New Year, Colin Burstead,’ Is A Bruising, Brilliant Family Drama [LFF Review]

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Practically every director, at some point, matures a little and decides to spread their wings a bit. Steven Spielberg diversified from blockbusters to Oscar-friendly prestige pictures. Every so often, Martin Scorsese takes a break from the crime fare that made his name to make a quiet period drama like “The Age Of Innocence,” “Kundun” or “Silence.” Wes Craven made “Music Of The Heart.

All of this is to say that, seven years, five features and two episodes of “Doctor Who” since Ben Wheatley came to the attention of film lovers with the brutal, brilliant “Kill List,” the director has finally made a film where not a single head gets smashed into pieces. Not one. In fact, the closest thing to a gruesome injury anyone suffers is a banged knee after slipping on a doorstep fifteen minutes into the film.

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But lest anyone think that the dysfunctional-family-brought-together-during-the-holidays premise of “Happy New Year, Colin Burstead,” Wheatley’s new film, means that the director’s gone all “The Family Stone” on us, rest assured that there’s much more “Festen” DNA here than anything else. Oh, and it’s ace too— perhaps Wheatley’s most totally satisfying film to date.

Filmed under the title “Colin, You Anus” (a nod to Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus,” though it’s hard to see much crossover with the play here), it sees the titular Colin (Neil Maskell of “Kill List”) renting a country house in Dorset to host his extended family for a New Year’s Eve party. Everyone, bar the eccentric, sentimental Uncle Bernie (Charles Dance, playing excellently against type) is mostly annoyed that they’ve had to drive for hours to get there, but it soon emerges that there’s a wrench in the works that promises to make this even more explosive than most Burstead gatherings: sister Gini (Hayley Squires, of “I, Daniel Blake”) has invited black sheep brother David (Sam Riley), despite the fact that he’s estranged from everyone, particularly parents Gordon (Bill Paterson) and Sandy (Doon Mackichan).

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This barely scratches the surface of what’s going on across a pleasingly brisk 100-minute running time: there’s an almost an Altman-ish canvas of characters, played by both Wheatley veterans (Maskell, Riley, Sinead Matthews from “Ideal,” Peter Ferdinando and Richard Glover from “A Field In England”), and newcomers (Dance, fast-riser Joe Cole from “Green Room,” Riley’s real-life spouse Alexandra Maria Lara, Asim Chaudhry, the break-out star of British comedy hit “People Just Do Nothing,” who acquits himself well here with a more dramatic role). But it’s a credit to Wheatley’s screenplay (partly improvised or devised by the cast) that it juggles so many characters and storylines so well.

Initially, knowing the director, you’re waiting for the horrible murder, or the appearance of masked cultists (Maskell does don a head-torch at one point in a knowing nod to “Kill List”). But it swiftly becomes clear that the reference points here are something quite different — the aforementioned “Festen,” Mike Leigh’s “Abigail’s Party,’ “Krisha,” Cassavetes, even Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married.

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It’s not that it’s warm and fuzzy — the single-location setting, and Wheatley’s facility for geography, makes it feel a little like a version of “Free Fire” with verbal bullets instead of literal ones. But by the end, it builds to something more emotional than the director’s made before, and while I will go to my grave waving the flag for “High Rise” as a masterpiece, even I will acknowledge that this is the most pleasing and accessible thing Wheatley’s made since at least “Sightseers” as a result.

Some might dismiss the film as minor Wheatley — made in just a couple of weeks, on a budget likely smaller than even many of Wheatley’s inexpensive earlier pictures. But there’s a lot going on in it, from the genuinely profound portrait of how families can bring out the most toxic sides of their members when they’re together, to a light sprinkling of state-of-the-nation, post-Brexit commentary (it’s the first film I can recall to directly reference the U.K.’s disastrous decision, and there’s a lot of subtext to chew on beyond that).

There’s not a bum note among the cast (even Riley, who I’ve struggled with in the past, suits his role down to the ground), and DP Laurie Rose continues to be Wheatley’s most valuable weapon, making a set-up that could feel theatrical prove genuinely cinematic. The director recently said that he’s developing a TV series featuring the “Happy New Year, Colin Burstead” characters. While we hope that doesn’t mean that he’s putting away the head-smashing for good, the maturity and emotional richness on show here means that we’ll be more than glad to see Wheatley continuing to operate in a more grounded place [A-]

“Happy New Year Colin Burstead” will premiere in the U.K. on the BBC at Christmas. No news yet on an international release beyond that.

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