* * * 1/2
Like his contemporary Peter Strickland, whose In Fabric was reviewed last week, is now in Australian cinemas, and boasts him as an executive producer, Ben Wheatley is the kind of British auteur whose existence is a testament to the British film industry and particularly BBC Films, who co-produced his latest, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead. Like Strickland, Wheatley is an uncompromising and highly skilled writer/director who has a relatively small but very dedicated following. Where he departs from Strickland – thus far in their careers, anyway – is that he’s more wide-ranging in his tastes; while Strickland’s films kind of occur in a Strickland universe, Wheatley has shifted genres, styles and methodology. He’s made a funny gun movie (Free Fire), a creepy folk-horror hitman thriller (Kill List), a formally daring adaptation of a staple of Brit Sci-Fi lit (High-Rise), a flat-out psychedelic folk tale (A Field in England) and a low-key black comedy (Sightseers). You cover a lot of ground playing around in his filmography.
Here, he not only takes on Dogme, he delivers a film that riffs on the first, and greatest, pure Dogme film, Festen (1998, Thomas Vinterberg). That film saw an extended group of family and friends converge on a gorgeous country estate for a patriarch’s birthday party; here, so do a similar group for New Year’s Eve. As with all family gatherings, let alone family gathering films, there will be tension, there will be arguments, there may even be blood.
Indeed, if we’re familiar with Wheatley, we may even be expecting some blood. Minor spoiler alert: it’s not that kind of film. This is a legitimate family gathering comedy drama: there are no ghosts, monsters or sneaky horror events, and no guns. As with Festen and Dogme,since the filmmaking apparatus is minimized (handheld cameras, no fancy lighting, minimal locations, minimal props, no VFX or extraneous sound design etc), the enjoyment falls to the cast and the story. Here the latter is tight enough to be compelling but the former is an absolute cracker. Every character seethes with life, brought there by such singular British actors as Hayley Squires (who is also in In Fabric), Charles Dance (as you’ve never seen him!), Bill Paterson, Neil Maskell, Sam Riley, and Doon Mackichan (and if their names don’t ring a bell with you, their faces might). The whole thing is co-ordinated beautifully by Wheatley, who makes filmmaking look easy. It’s not, of course, it’s bloody hard, and just because a film like this appears so modest, that doesn’t make it any easier. Indeed, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead has to hold our attention with no tricks, gimmicks or flim -flam; it’s all about storytelling, and Wheatley is terrific at that.