Writer and Director: Ben Wheatley
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
The country house drama is a British staple, the often-unexpected gathering of people resulting in secrets being unearthed and sometimes even murder most foul. Over the years writers and directors have given it a different twist including Robert Altman’s precursor to Downton Abbey, Gosford Park, a piercing examination of class and social responsibility. Now London Film Festival regular, Ben Wheatley explores the low-simmering tensions of one family as they gather for an explosive New Year party.
Colin has rented a modest castle by the sea for New Year’s Eve and invited three generations of his extended family including his parents, siblings and partners. Already annoyed by the long drive, the Bursteads’ evening is soon complicated by the unexpected arrival of Colin’s estranged brother David and old wounds reopen. As midnight approaches, competing agendas and plenty of emotional run-ins, no one is in for a happy new year.
Wheatley’s most recent films have been rather excitable, and while he is a director who likes to work with large ensemble casts, he can often lose control of the pacing. In High Rise a wonderfully stylised opening section too quickly gave way to orgiastic chaos that detracted from its pointed social comment. Here his approach is much more intimate, and the smaller canvas allows Wheatley to more easily control how the multi-viewpoint story holds together, as well as the timing and aftermath of individual revelations.
As the writer, as well as director, Wheatley and his cast in just 95-minutes have contrived so many small moments that give considerable insight into the various personalities within the family. As soon as she arrives matriarch Sandy (Doon Mackichan) trips on the doorstep, lying prostrate for just that bit too long while Colin (Neil Maskell) boils with sarcastic fury telling us so much about their respective need for attention. Repeatedly we also see members of the family deliberately hiding from each other, putting-off a meeting for as long as possible – this gathering is a chore but it’s family so they have to endure it.
The narrative is predominantly driven by the anticipated arrival of black sheep David (Sam Riley) and the undercurrents that emerge from his presence. It’s a strong backbone from which the rest of the film must hang, giving each member of the Bursteads a point of view on David’s return and a segue into their own individual stories. Wheatley’s social-realist approach corrals the stories fairly well, using small moments of tension and annoyance as stepping stones to a couple of bigger showdowns later on, and ones that pleasingly alter the audience’s perspective on what we have already seen, showing a slightly different truth that makes for a satisfactory conclusion.
The sibling triangle of Colin, David and Gini (the excellent Hayley Squires) is well-drawn, leaving just enough ambiguity to see both their motivations and their faults, while parents Sandy and Gordon (Bill Paterson) are sufficiently vivid that their children’s personalities are explained. But, the problem with multi-character dramas means there is too little time to really explore them all in sufficient detail, and while everyone has a purpose, on the periphery they are little more than frustrating sketches of what could have been fuller subplots.
Charles Dance is wasted as the cross-dressing Uncle Bertie with a terminal illness that never entirely comes into focus, Asim Chaudhry’s Sham becomes the butt of a few jokes but his recent relationship with Sinead Matthews waitress/housekeeper, working at the party by chance, is given only a passing reference. Likewise, Richard Glover’s Lord of the manor has a dark past noticed by Peter Fernando’s Jimmy (whose Burstead status is unclear) warranting only a single comment by a blown-fuse box, while the younger generation including Joe Cole as Jimmy’s son and Neil’s daughter who wanders off into the garden at the start of the film seems to be just making up the numbers.
Using an atypical upper working-class/middle-class family is a refreshing change and Wheatley’s ensemble cast are entirely believable as one dysfunctional but perfectly normal family at one of the most stressful times of the year. It’s nice to see Wheatley channelling his skills into a more domestic setting, and although the smaller-scale approach of Happy New Year Colin Bursteadis tonally well-managed, it is not quite as well-shaped as it could be.
Release Date: 11 October 2018 | Image: Contributed