HAPPY NEW YEAR, COLIN BURSTEAD

★★★★

A TOXIC FAMILY CAR CRASH

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW
By Charlie David Page
3rd June 2019

No family is perfect - but some are substantially worse than others. Mine (hi, fam - who am I kidding, they’d never read this) definitely has its share of disputes, secrets and lunacy - but the family in ‘Happy New Year, Colin Burstead’ puts mine to shame in an extreme way. Equal parts repulsive and addictive, the cataclysm that escalates is sure to hit many a little too close to home.

Colin (Neil Maskell, ‘Kill List’, TV’s ‘Utopia’) organises a massive party in a countryside mansion for his family on New Year’s Eve. Little does he know, but his sister Gini (Hayley Squires, ‘I, Daniel Blake’, ‘In Fabric’) has invited their estranged brother David (Sam Riley, ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’, ‘On The Road’) along as a surprise to their mother Sandy (Doon Mackichan, TV’s ‘Plebs’ and ‘Smack the Pony’), despite the fact he hasn’t seen the family since he deserted his wife Paula (Sarah Baxendale) and their children five years ago. Receiving a cold shoulder upon his arrival, David works hard to convince everyone he’s changed - much to the chargrin of family head Colin.

This is possibly the most despicable group of people you’ll ever meet. Colin is a bit of a dick (to put it nicely) - he wants nothing to do with his brother, fakes a call cutting out with Gini to avoid discussing her husband, leaves everyone else to help his mum up when she falls over, won’t loan his parents the money they need to stop them from losing their house, and hides Paula in a wine cellar when she gets emotional - and that’s just in the first 15 minutes of the film.

'HAPPY NEW YEAR, COLIN BURSTEAD' TRAILER

The rest of the group aren’t any better. Sandy is the overbearing matriarch, ordering around her husband Gordon (Bill Paterson) like a child. Sham (Asim Chaudhry, TV's 'People Just Do Nothing'), the son of Sandy's best friends Maya (Sudha Bhuchar, ‘Mary Poppins Returns’) and Nikhil (Vincent Ebrahim, TV's 'The Kumars at No. 42'), has tagged along to try to win back his ex-girlfriend Lainey (Sinead Matthews, 2005's 'Pride and Predudice', 'Happy-Go-Lucky'), a family friend who’s been hired to do the catering; his first words to her are essentially “Marry me.” Sandy’s brother Ed (Peter Ferdinando, ‘Ghost In The Shell’) wrongly accuses the hapless doormat of a housekeeper Sir Richard Cumberland (Richard Glover, ‘Into The Woods’) of having sold him bad drugs years ago.

It’s a massive cast - and I haven’t even mentioned Charles Dance, Sura Dohnke, Alexandra Maria Lara, Mark Monero or Joe Cole yet - and they’re all unleashed upon the audience simultaneously. This makes the first act a bit of a murky mess - you’re desperately trying to figure out who’s who and how they’re all related, made worse by the family’s habit of talking over each other. However, once the initial confusion settles, it’s a kind of sadistic fun watching these people clash - everyone’s talking about everyone behind their backs, with hushed whispers in small huddles throughout quiet corners of the mansion. It’s the dynamic of a real feuding family - a little too real, perhaps.

This is a Ben Wheatley (‘Free Fire’, ‘High-Rise’) film - a filmmaker whose strength lies in his familiarity with the work, with him once again writing and directing ‘Colin Burstead’. Dialog relies on typical British sentiment, with much more going on below the surface than we’re initially made privy to. There’s cracking wit as the family members snap back and forth at each other, and as the night (and level of alcohol consumption) progresses, they only get increasingly terrible to each other. It really is quite a spectacle.

It’s a kind of sadistic fun watching these people clash, with the dynamic of a real feuding family - a little too real, perhaps.

Although the film is set inside a prestigious manor, there’s nothing distinguished about this family, and the cinematography follows suit. Rather than grand shots of the estate or its luxurious interior, the entire film is hand-held and invasive, almost like another family member drunkenly stumbling around. This can occasionally be distracting from what’s happening, particularly with so much already going on within the frame, but there are times it works to perfection - the confrontation between Colin and David is shot mis en scène, a continuous shot that bounces back and forth between single shots of the brothers, not unlike a boxing match.

Despite its title, this really is an ensemble film, and every character has their own whims and issues. Neil Maskell’s Colin is perfectly repulsive; the film is crafted so that you despise him from the very first scene. On the other hand, Sam Riley plays the rockstar son David as a balance between slimeball and prodigal son, always walking a fine line and yet somehow coming off as likeable by the end, despite his escalating atrocities. Although everyone here is wonderful and completely on board with the toxic nature of the production, Hayley Squires is fantastically charismatic as Gini, vilified for having invited David whilst trying to convince everyone that he’s still a member of their family. Charles Dance is also a great surprise as Uncle Bertie. We see an establishing scene with him putting on earrings whilst rehearsing a speech about his undisclosed terminal illness and how this will be the last New Year’s that he’ll spend with his family; his character has the most at stake here, and yet he seems to be the most grounded of the group.

This odd mix of family, friends, plus ones and exes provides an entertaining - if not uncomfortable - film. By its conclusion, you’re bound to be exhausted by the whole experience, yet simultaneously fixated by the car-crash unfolding in slow motion before you. ‘Happy New Year, Colin Burstead’ has more secrets and infighting than an episode of ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians’, so sit back and watch the drama unfold.

Looking for more Sydney Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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