Colin Burstead (Neil Maskell) is getting ready for a party. As the film’s title suggests, it’s New Year’s Eve, and Colin has rented a mansion where he and his family will celebrate the special day. But it’s a four hour drive away, as he is repeatedly reminded when extended family members and a few friends begin to arrive. And that isn’t the only issue with the night’s festivities. Someone was left off the invite list, a brother who subsequently has been told he can come.
What ensues is a fascinating cycle of cruelty and blame avoidance. Colin’s sister, Gini (Hayley Squires) has been in contact with estranged brother David (Sam Riley), though she insists she doesn’t actually want him there. She has invited him for the sake of their mother, played by Doon Mackichan, to reconcile a relationship damaged by David’s affair five years earlier. And their father (Bill Paterson) desperately needs to talk to David about business.
But Colin doesn’t care about any of this, he just wants to show off how much he can afford to pay for. Watching these dynamics unfold is both cringy and gleeful, often simultaneously – the dialogue writer/director Ben Wheatley has crafted sparkles and zings, and is effortlessly revealing. There is no hero here, no one to pull the five of them together past the problems they share, and each is determined to pin faults on the others. In the end, no one at the party is in the right, but someone must be scapegoated.
The conflict is only added to by the surrounding characters, but in such a way that hilarity encompasses moments that might otherwise feel uncomfortable. The chief culprit is Asim Chaudhry, playing Sham, the son of the Burstead’s close family friends. He has crashed the party in an attempt to win back the love of his ex-girlfriend, who is catering the event. As Sham rockets from misplaced arrogance to shallow depression and back again, Chaudhry delivers some of the film’s best one liners and gags. Elsewhere, Charles Dance soars as an odd uncle, and Alexandria Maria Lara’s outsider’s view of the family grounds the film firmly in reality, highlighting the nonsense. There is never time to languish on a single character or plot thread, though, as Wheatley masterfully cuts between characters every few seconds. The editing is astounding, propelling the piece from what might have been an intriguing stage play to a wonderfully realised film.
Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is a return for Wheatley to British territory after last year’s Free Fire, and his familiarity shows. If the end of the film feels a little anticlimactic, it only truthfully reflects the reality of the familial situation. The disagreements and idiosyncrasies of the characters are pitch perfect, reminiscent of the superb exchanges from Kill List. But the brutality of Kill List, as well as Sightseers and A Field in England, is missing here. Colin Burstead might just be Ben Wheatley’s most accessible film to date, but that isn’t a pro or a con. Simply, it is a film about family, one that is absolutely worth a watch.
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