With a cast full to the brim with British thespians, an established filmmaker and a gorgeous English Homestead for a setting, one might expect magic. When that combination combines the enigmatic Charles Dance with the auteur Ben Wheatley and a loose plot which gives the cast room to improvise, one might expect a darkly comic yet chaotic Death at a Funeral. However, family reunion film Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, is a jarring, chaotic drama cramming every inch of possible family tension and male posturing into one and a half hours.
Colin (Neil Maskell) has organised a country estate for his family to celebrate New Years Eve. Unbeknownst to him and many of his guests, little sister Gini (Hayley Squires) has invited estranged brother David (Sam Riley) and all manner of drama is set to ensue. Dad Gordon (Bill Paterson) is hard up for money and his sons seem unwilling to help him out yet again. Mum Sandy (Doon Mackichan) has a flare for the dramatic and after stumbling through the door on the way in plays the victim with anyone who’ll listen. Uncle Bertie (the aforementioned divine Charles Dance) is the star of the show with his nonchalant make-up and earrings, practising before a mirror his final goodbye to his beloved family before lining up the gins and lighting up the dance floor. The party is stocked with unknown entities who fit into the fray in some way, and the action often times flits between three or four scenes in an attempt to have the film play out in real time in every room all at once.
There are moments of hilarity as this family of “commoners” abuse Lord Richard (Richard Glover) who is trying his hardest in his role as guardian of the estate once owned by his esteemed and now seemingly broke family. Comedian Asim Chaudhry turns a one note side character into one of the most wholly realised and fleshed out “party guest number 3’s” of all time, lending his friendly effortless wit to every improvised interaction. Maskell gives a stellar performance as the oldest son, trying to hold everything together as the party melts down around him, building to an inevitable breakdown as he is driven to madness by his so called “loved ones”.
There are moments, but this chaotic, shaky cam collage of scenes at a party is raucous, exhausting and glum. It is hard work making sense of the chaos; characters, presumably cousins, get lost in the fray before suddenly becoming relevant at a convenient time and then slinking into the background once again. At one point Colin puts the distraught ex-wife of his brother in the wine cellar so she can “have space to calm down”, and she stays until someone finds her and tells her she can leave. If the film were actually funny, playing this ridiculous interaction for laughs might be absurdly funny, but it stands out here as absurdist and cruel, totally at odds with how these characters later develop in the film. Wheatley seems to have taken the dogma of the Dogme 95 and their authentic filmmaking far too strictly, not so much directing as he is allowing the chaos to ensue.
Perhaps watching the dysfunction of a middle class family from Northern England, unencumbered by the end of the world or the premise of social distancing might make you feel good right now, but if you’re looking for a fun, funny film, it’s not this one.
Happy New Year Colin Burstead is in cinemas from 19th March through Limelight Distribution.