Director: Ben Wheatley
Starring: Neil Maskell, Sam Riley, Hayley Squires, Doon Mackichan, Bill Paterson
Length: 1hr 35m
It is ironic that the first of Ben Wheatley's films not to feature violence is filled with so much menace. The characters of Happy New Year, Colin Burstead wield no hammers or bludgeons; they fight with words, words fashioned from long-simmering resentment and a touch of heartbreak.
Wheatley's new film is a riveting, hilarious take on a classic formula. Like Thomas Vinterberg, Tennessee Williams and countless others before him, Wheatley takes a bunch of family members, all of whom are far from happy with each other, and drops them in a confined space, watching and waiting until their long-held grudges come to the fore and the knives are well and truly out.
Our focal point in the film is Colin Burstead, played by Neil Maskell, a run-of-the-mill bloke who's done well for himself. Deciding to keep 'project family' afloat, he rents out a large country house, where he and his family can celebrate New Year's Eve. Funnily enough, things don't go to plan, not least because Colin's sister Gini has invited their estranged brother Dave.
It's an efficient set-up that allows for plenty of dramatic weight and satirical humour, but what notches Happy New Year up to the next level is how well Wheatley freshens up the formula. The film's plot could so easily have been a stage play, but what Wheatley achieves with it could only be done in the cinema. The first half an hour or so of the film are shot with shaky handheld cameras, cutting from one close-up to another. This never allows the audience to settle and creates a sense of fractured disarray. The distinct visual style lays the table for Wheatley's cast to land the heavy blows. With such a disorientating feel, the hilarious comedy of the film's first half is exacerbated. Sometimes, conversations overlap, or one person is in focus whilst we can hear another speaking. This means that the film's many jokes jump out at us from nowhere, catching the audience off guard.
For a film about a failed party, there is an incredible sense of mirth to the film. The characters arrive one by one, each clearly defined from the moment we see them. As the quips fly around and the house fills up, Wheatley creates an anticipation of what's to come, revelling in the disaster. There is a self-awareness to the film that helps distinguish it from other works of its type. There is never a pretence that this is going to end well, no veneer of acceptability for the characters to hide behind. They are, for the most part, outwardly unhappy and antagonistic people. We all know everything's going to go to shit and so do the characters, but we cannot wait for it to happen.
Yet this inevitability to the film's hysterics is also why it carries such an emotional depth; Wheatley judges the tone of the piece perfectly. As funny as the film gets, it is always shot through with the pain and cynicism of the Burstead clan. Clint Mansell's fantastic score has a threatening edge that stops us forgetting the anger and disappointment the characters are experiencing. The great advantage of an ensemble film like this is the ability to shine a light on both collective and individual pain. Each family member has their own reasons to feel aggrieved, their own lost love, guilt or betrayal to reckon with. Put them all together, and there is a collective sadness that what could have been a happy family has been reduced to tears.
The transition the film makes in tone, becoming progressively darker as time wears on, feels seamless. The large ensemble cast all deserve credit for this, from a marvellously wicked Sam Riley as reprobate-in-chief Dave, to the funny, pathetic Asim Chaudhry and the biting, end-of-her-tether Doon Mackichan as the Burstead matriarch. There is a short stretch of the film where things do sag slightly. The zip of the early comedy is superb, but for a brief spell it is missing, and the emotional punch of the film's final act hasn't kicked in yet. The ending however, is spot-on - bittersweet and perfectly played.
Wheatley's latest may not add much new to its family drama themes, but it does well to remind us how the person trying hardest to hold the family together, could also be the one pushing it apart. This is an entertaining powder-keg of a film, but one that won't disappear after it's blown. Wheatley has taken a tried and tested formula and played it to his own tune. Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is cynical enough to remain acerbic and satirical, but earnest enough to make you feel its characters pain.