In 2018, I published an essay called ‘From Down Terrace to High-Rise: The “Unreal Estate” Cinema of Ben Wheatley’ in James Harvey’s edited collection, Nationalism in Contemporary Western European Cinema.
What is more, I am due to give a talk about this essay at the British Film Institute on Monday 14 January (if you are reading this ahead of the event, then tickets are available here!).
However, given that Ben Wheatley’s new film is currently available on the BBC iPlayer (and until 28 January 2019), I wonder that I might talk about that film – not least because it chimes with much of what I have to say about Wheatley’s cinema.
And so this blog can in some senses function as a written version of that talk, in which I shall suggest (or will have suggested) that Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is not so much a step backwards for Wheatley (who ‘returns’ to the UK after Free Fire, UK, 2016, which although British-backed was set in Boston and featured a host of international stars, including Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Brie Larsen and Cillian Murphy), but rather something of a summation of his work to date.
For, as I suggest in my essay, Wheatley’s films return relatively obsessively to the concept of real estate and the home – as things that in principle should be markers of a stable territory, and thus points of certitude, but which in Wheatley’s anarchic cinema are often revealed to be unstable and thus in some senses unreal.
More than this, Wheatley is basically sensitive to how claims to own land are claims to shape reality; that is, the ‘real’ of real estate is a term used to convince people that the ownership of land and property is legitimate – even if historically the ownership of all land is based on exploitation and theft.
For, no one actually owns any land at all – unless you can convince people that this otherwise free Earth that we can cross in any direction we please is in fact divided up into territories that you may or may not be able to enter, depending on whether you have the right kind of pass or credentials.
If you do believe that these bounded territories are real, then ‘real estate’ has done its ideological trick, since it has not only made you believe, but it also has made you modify your behaviour and actions based upon this belief. That is, estates are made real because you have swallowed and embodied the notion of ownership.
This is not necessarily for the bad. For, in believing in the ownership of space, you may then also make a home – and believe that this space is yours and yours alone (every Englishman’s home is his castle)… and be happy with that space, even as others grab vast terrains of land and claim it as their own, and only lease to you your land for 99 years.
However, given that Wheatley’s cinema repeatedly sees people violate private spaces and begin to see that estate is in fact unreal, this also means beginning to see that the world is carved up by powerful agents who need you to believe in their legitimacy – otherwise they will no longer have any claim to exploit that land, together with your brain and body as you allow them to do so because you accept that the estate is real and walk around it or do not enter it because it is theirs and not yours, even though the land belongs to no one, as mentioned.
Working through Down Terrace (UK, 2009), Kill List (UK, 2011), Sightseers (UK, 2012), A Field in England (UK, 2013) and High-Rise (UK/Belgium/Ireland, 2015), I suggest that Wheatley’s cinema is somehow meaningful in the era of Brexit and Grenfell Tower, given that Brexit has for many British people a core sense of reclaiming land for themselves from Europe, with the Grenfell disaster seeing many people homeless even though numerous apartments and houses lie empty in the very same area of London (North Kensington) – owned, but not occupied, and not occupy-able because owned.
In other words, Wheatley’s cinema has something to teach us at a time when we seemingly continue to believe and thus to accept as real claims to national territory and private property. As per the title of James Harvey’s edited collection, this then means that Wheatley does chart the ongoing notion of nationalism within the contemporary UK.
Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is about property and homes – especially as they relate to family. The very first image that we see is of a house, out of which Colin (Neil Maskell) then appears with a cup of tea and a Vape (we see him exhale smoke in slow motion).
Colin has arranged a New Year’s Eve party for his family at Penn Castle on the Isle of Portland in Dorset, the choice of which location I shall explore more in detail below.
Travelling mainly down from Brighton or thereabouts, Colin is joined by his wife, Val (Sura Dohnke), and their daughter Fran (Nicole Nettleingham), as well as his parents, Sandy (Doon Mackichan) and Gordon (Bill Paterson), and his sister Gini (Hayley Squires) and her partner Warren (Mark Monero).
Also present are Sandy’s friends, Maya (Sudha Bhuchar) and Nikhil (Vincent Ebrahim), together with their ne’er-do-well son, Sham (Asim Chaudhry), Jimmy (Peter Ferdinando) and Ed (Joe Cole), who seem to be cousins of some sort, and cross-dressing Uncle Bertie (Charles Dance).
Finally, the group is rounded off by Paula (Sarah Baxendale), who is the ex-wife of David (Sam Riley), Colin’s estranged brother and the black sheep of the family, who turns up at Gini’s request with his German girlfriend Hannah (Alexandra Maria Lara).
What is more, the castle is run by Lord Richard (Richard Glover) and one of Colin’s exes, Lainey (Sinead Matthews), who also has had a relationship with Sham, who basically crashes the party in a bid to get back together with her.
As hopefully is clear, then, the scene is set for a total clusterfuck of a party as Gordon tries unsuccessfully to tap Colin for some money to save him from losing his house, and as Val finds out about Colin’s past with Lainey.
What is more, Bertie is dying, Sham has lost his job, Gini and Warren bicker about the latter’s inability to do anything, and David has slept with at least three people at the party, including Paula (with whom he has a child), Hannah, and, a late revelation to the audience, Val.
Colin has, nonetheless, managed to steady and maintain his relationship with Val, with whom he has had a second child, Baby Jamie (Marvin Maskell). But this does not stop him from eventually having to walk away from his family.
Indeed, as David comes through at the last to help Gordon, it would seem that he (at the behest of Hannah, perhaps) has a stronger sense of family than Colin, whose final words he shouts to the sea: fuck them!
In other words, while David clearly does not necessarily respect boundaries when it comes to women, he nonetheless does after five years want to re-become and to remain part of his family, especially as his mother Sandy also seems to have had a tough year, perhaps struggling with illness.
That said, there does remain some interesting ambiguity around Colin’s relationship with Lainey, for example, through whom he hires the castle and who acts as caterer for the party… apparently he has done this to help her out, but perhaps there is more to that relationship than meets the eye… meaning that Colin may not only stray himself, but also that he, too, does not believe in the fixity of family.
Indeed, while our sympathies waver in terms of how we feel about all of the characters, ultimately the film opens up the possibility that, as per Down Terrace, a loving relationship can in fact supersede a sense of family. In other words, there are no rules and nothing is fixed or guaranteed – not the love of a family and certainly not the reality of home.
And so it is to the film’s take on property that I should like to turn. For, Penn Castle is clearly impressive and a much bigger home than those typically inhabited by all of the characters in the film, including, as we subsequently discover, Lord Richard.
First sight of the castle prompts comments from various characters, with Sandy managing somehow to trip up on the small step that leads up to its doorway, meaning that she subsequently spends a portion of the film in a wheelchair found in a shed.
Indeed, this ‘accident’ (which Colin amusingly finds tiresome and all-too-predictable) would suggest that Sandy does not feel at home in this space, instead somehow intimidated by it – in thrall to the way in which architecture is often designed in order to elicit precisely such a response. For, if one is made to feel uncomfortable (or even comfortable) in lavish spaces, then one is halfway towards believing that estates are real.
The castle similarly evokes an aggressive response from Jimmy, who later tries to intimidate Lord Richard by claiming that he has been to the castle before – for a rave, at which he bought a dud pill, supposedly from Richard.
What is more, this use of space to intimidate people is felt by Gini, who believes that Colin has given her and Warren the smallest bedroom precisely to put her in her place.
In other words, there is tension in the film between how the organisation of space is trying and in some ways succeeding in making us feel (that estates are real, that the social order is timeless and unchangeable), and how people want to feel (that they can be and do anything and go anywhere).
Indeed, a rave is precisely an event that reappropriates private property and uses it for a semi-public purpose (even though many raves are ticketed and guarded, which in some senses and paradoxically defeats what I would take to be one of their primary purposes: to disrespect property rules and the notion of private space).
Not even Richard, however, is lord of this manor. He is, as he confesses at one point to Lainey, a ‘piss poor’ (but genuine) Lord who lives in significantly smaller digs abutting the castle, and who has started to host events like this as a means to stay afloat.
In other words, Lords are no longer the rulers that they used to be – but this is not as a result of the abolition of systems of ownership and power. Rather, Richard has simply been superseded by the company/corporation that now runs the castle, selling to families like the Bursteads the carnivalesque illusion that they, too, can be lords – even if only for a day.
It seems only to be David who feels no intimidation, with Hannah describing him at one points as being like a puppy shitting on the carpet – since he knows no boundaries and observes no rules, except at the last the rule of filiality, as he comes through for his father.
David is also associated with a space that is the opposite of a private house, namely the public house that he goes to for a drink after his first confrontation with Colin. Indeed, as he later invites all of the pub-goers, including a local band, to come back to the party at the castle, we get a sense that David endorses a kind of spatial free-for-all – a rave, if you will, that perhaps also extends to his thinking about money. That is, perhaps David supports his father not so much out of a sense of filial duty, but also because money is meaningless rather than a necessary possession to him (although this latter point might be a bit of an overstatement based on the evidence that Wheatley presents to us).
Richard at one point makes the obvious joke that Burstead sounds a bit like bastard, calling the Bursteads a bunch of bastards as he shows Lainey his modest living quarters.
But beyond a joke, the pun is also telling in that a bastard is of course an illegitimate child who challenges the notion of family, suggesting a far more complex and real world, in which there are no real rules, even if we all act as if there were. The Bursteads may well be bastards, then, in the sense that they do feel in some senses outsiders and alone in the world, perhaps with only each other for support (and Colin perhaps with less than that come the film’s end).
This profound sense of loneliness (we are all ultimately on our own and have no one to help us) chimes with what I would call Wheatley’s ‘atheism,’ by which I mean to say that his cinema does not respect the gods who claim that estates are real, and who in some senses – as an autodidactic filmmaker – does not respect the gods of cinema.
Perhaps the film’s form can therefore be understood as reinforcing this lack of rules. There clearly seems to have been a lot of improvisation in the film – with the actors being credited at the end for having provided additional material on top of Wheatley’s own script.
Not only does improv suggest a refusal to stick to the script, which gives to cinema a life that is ruleless (anything could happen), but this also means that Wheatley almost by definition has to edit the film rapidly (in a fashion that for some might be ‘excessively choppy’), and that cinematographer Laurie Rose also has almost by definition to film handheld so that he can respond to and find the details in the performances that are taking place.
Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is clearly redolent of Thomas Vinterberg’s dogme ’95 classic, Festen/The Celebration (Denmark/Sweden, 1998), not only in its tale of family disharmony at a special gathering, but also in its use of handheld cameras and naturalistic performances. Although Wheatley is not a ‘dogmatic’ filmmaker, Happy New Year… does in some senses share with Vinterberg and the other founders of the famous Danish film movement an irreverence towards the cinematic establishment, with the film moving so fast at times that it becomes hard to follow (for example, I am still not sure why Jimmy and Ed are at the party, nor really why Maya and Nikhil got invited, even though my family also has ‘members’ who are not related by blood at all and yet who come along to every gathering that we have – and they are thus family members).
Indeed, if Happy New Year, Colin Burstead recalls a Danish film, it clearly also is exploring a relationship between the UK and Europe, as is made clear by David’s relationship with Hannah, as well, in a more muted fashion, Colin’s relationship with Val, in that Sura Dohnke is Belgian, which creates a strange resonance with Kill List, in which Neil Maskell’s wife is played by Swedish actress, MyAnna Buring, in an equally understated fashion.
Indeed, perhaps the film would wish to suggest that who is British and who is European is indeed almost impossible at times to tell – with the Asian heritage of Maya, Nikhil and Sham also suggesting a Britain that has no pure or precise characteristics, with Mark Monero’s presence and Charles Dance’s turn as a transvestite also troubling any idea that Britain is a nation of straight white people.
In a truly touching and climactic moment, David sits at a piano and sings a song that he has written for Sandy – with shades of Sam Riley’s turn as Ian Curtis in Anton Corbijn’s Control (UK/USA/Australia/Japan/France, 2007) coming through. After he has finished, Hannah sings ‘Die Gedanken sind frei,’ a German traditional, the title of which translates as ‘thoughts are free.’
Hannah sings the first three verses:-
Die Gedanken sind frei, wer kann sie erraten,
sie fliegen vorbei wie nächtliche Schatten.
Kein Mensch kann sie wissen, kein Jäger sie schießen
mit Pulver und Blei: Die Gedanken sind frei!
Ich denke was ich will und was mich beglücket,
doch alles in der Still’, und wie es sich schicket.
Mein Wunsch und Begehren kann niemand verwehren,
es bleibet dabei: Die Gedanken sind frei!
Und sperrt man mich ein im finsteren Kerker,
das alles sind rein vergebliche Werke.
Denn meine Gedanken zerreißen die Schranken
und Mauern entzwei: Die Gedanken sind frei!
… which translate as follows…
Thoughts are free, who can guess them?
They fly by like nocturnal shadows.
No person can know them, no hunter can shoot them
with powder and lead: Thoughts are free!
I think what I want, and what delights me,
still always reticent, and as it is suitable.
My wish and desire, no one can deny me
and so it will always be: Thoughts are free!
And if I am thrown into the darkest dungeon,
all these are futile works,
because my thoughts tear all gates
and walls apart: Thoughts are free!
The last lines are in particular resonant for my argument here: Wheatley believes that thoughts can tear gates and walls apart, even as walls and gates are put up, kept and thus in some senses are real – as Bertie goes on to affirm immediately afterwards by saying how much he loves his family, which then leads into the New Year’s countdown, a rendition of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and the year ends as a new door opens (January being derived from the Latin ianua, meaning door).
There are several references to Brexit in the film, with Colin calling Gini a ‘remoaner’ and Fran suggesting a lack of interest in politics by saying ‘fuck Labour and fuck the Tories.’ What is more, while this political context does form the backdrop for the film, there are some very and specifically British touches/references in the film – for example, Colin’s invocation of 1970s stand-up comedian Norman Collier, whose ‘broken microphone’ routine he re-enacts to pretend that the phone line is not working clearly.
(Indeed, it is a relatively common trait throughout the film for Colin not to listen. He puts on earphones at the film’s start, before shutting Val in a larder once they reach the castle; he avoids David for as long as he can, enlisting Sham to help him… and so while I wish to come back positively to Colin, in some senses he perhaps does epitomise Brexit Britain, right down to the hypocrisy of having a Belgian partner.)
Happy New Year… also involves Wheatley’s trademark use of British folk music on the soundtrack (which also was composed by Clint Mansell), with the film ending with that staple title card from British sitcoms ‘You have been watching…’
In other words, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is as British as the BBC, which produced the film, and yet it also suggests something non- or post-British as it analyses how walls and gates delimit our thinking and create an island mentality, while at the same time pushing for more open, free and ‘European’ thinking.
I suggest in my essay on Wheatley that the use of folk music in A Field in England in particular takes us back to pre-monarchic times – which is apt for a film set during the English civil war. Perhaps here they do something similar, while the setting at Penn Castle and on Portland Bill does something similar, which I shall turn to now, as promised.
For, Penn Castle is the former home of John Penn, whose family founded and colonised Pennsylvania – before being turfed out following America’s own civil war. This in and of itself suggests a history of colonialism, land-grabbing as the foundation of the British Empire, and also revolution against such tactics.
But more than this, the island setting and the presence of the sea, at which Colin shouts at the film’s end, suggests a different world that is not defined by solid walls, but which instead is liquid, always shifting and, like thought, oceanic.
Dorset, meanwhile, takes its name from the county town of Dorchester, which not only is the name of a posh London hotel into which only moneyed elites can go, but it is also the modern version of Durnovaria, from the Romano-British duro-, meaning ‘walled town.’
That is, Dorset is a place of walls, while Portland Bill is a kind of exception to that. More than this, Dorset also recalls the idea of the dorsal, the backbone and thus of the vertebrate; perhaps’s humanity’s bone structure is itself part and parcel of how and why we think in terms of walls and fixity, property and privacy, turning and returning (our time is structured like our space: with barriers and divisions, rather than waves of time lapping and washing over us).
To think in an invertebrate fashion, away from the hard land and instead in the fathoms of the sea, is perhaps to think in a different, ‘improper’ way (to think improperly is perhaps necessary to think outwith and to outwit the concept of property), with Colin (whose name is also French for hake, even as it is a diminutive of Nicolas) rejecting the vertebrate notion of family and instead trying to rework his identity, even as this perhaps tragically leaves him isolated and alone.
He stands on Portland Bill’s Chesil Beach on England’s Jurassic Coast, shouting at the English channel. Where Ian McEwan’s novel and the subsequent film, On Chesil Beach (Dominic Cooke, UK, 2017), tell a story of a couple refusing to have sex, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead tells a story of bastards who are fucking irrespective of the law – in language and in deed.
Where McEwan/Cooke create a typical British heritage film that is white and virginal, clean and pretty, even as it includes McEwan’s weirdly prudish leaking of desire, Wheatley’s is a coarser but in many ways far more honest and embodied cinema that shows and acts upon desire, rather than dying tragically without having done anything about it. In this sense, Wheatley’s cinema is vibrant and alive, whilst Cooke’s cinéma de papa is tired and dying.
The Jurassic Beach also recalls a history much longer than simply the presence of humans on Earth (the so-called anthropocene), fitting Wheatley’s fictional world into a universe where there are no boundaries and not even the human race is permanent (and in this sense, Colin’s presence on the beach at the end might well help in getting us to see that there are no rules – not of space, not of time, not of family, not of species).
Working with regulars Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Neil Maskell, Mark Monero and Sam Riley, together with Laurie Rose on the camera as usual, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead does nonetheless involve some new directions for Wheatley, including writing the script without his partner Amy Jump (who produced) and with no part in the film for Michael Smiley.
(Small wonder that Wheatley is slated to direct a remake of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, another tale of real estate as Manderlay dominates the lives of the de Winters. Hopefully his version will be less heritage than most other literary adaptations!)
All the same, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead also functions as a summation in many ways of various of the anarchic and ‘atheistic’ ideas that circulate throughout his œuvre. Channeling other recent films like Archipelago (Joanna Hogg, UK, 2010) and The Party (Sally Potter, UK, 2017), as well as the ongoing work of Mike Leigh (whose influence was especially recognised with Sightseers), Wheatley remains one of the most interesting and innovative voices in British filmmaking (even if watching a film on iPlayer shows some irreverence towards what we used to call cinema).
Given the shit that we are about to face as we leave the European Union (the storming of the Houses of Parliament notwithstanding), Wheatley’s is perhaps the most important cinematic voice to be talking at the moment. Happy New Year. Let’s hope some walls come crumbling down and that some doors and gates get opened – otherwise 2019 might well be a year to forget. Die Gedanken sind frei!