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BFI London Film Festival

2018 London Film Festival: ‘Happy New Year, Colin Burstead’ Is a Tremendous Success

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It’s New Year’s Eve and Colin (Neil Maskell) just wants everyone to have a good time. He has rented a mansion in Dorset for the entire family (and some family friends) for the night, a place we are constantly reminded is a whole “four fucking hours drive” from home. He’s really looking forward to it, but there’s just one problem: his sister Gini (Hayley Squires) has invited along his estranged brother David (Sam Riley). Containing more secrets and lies than any other British ensemble film released in recent years, Colin Burstead, Happy New Year is a familiar version of the family reunion genre that has some deft things to say about the nature of conflict and the impossibility of clean reconciliations.

Adopting a Dogme 95-like approach – filled with naturalistic, improvisatory performances filmed on handheld cameras – Happy New Year, Colin Burstead’s recalls Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration in more ways than one. While not delving as deep as its bitterly dark Danish forebear, it is a similar mix of tragedy and comedy that makes full use of its brilliant British cast.

To explain the plot would be to explain several, which is perhaps the point of the movie, taking all the drama of a Victorian novel and condensing it in a brisk 95 minutes. As one character mentions, its the kind of no-holds-barred, cleaning-the-shit-off-the-plates night that happens once every ten years. At large family reunions, there is never just one story to be told, with several different storylines interwoven throughout. Credit must go to Ben Wheatley (who also edited the film) for keeping the whole tale coherent, knowing when to cut between lighter and darker moments, and maintaining a sense of forwarding momentum throughout.

Given Ben Wheatley’s penchant for veering his stories rapidly off-course, it’s easy to spend the entire movie waiting for the other shoe to drop. But Wheatley has something subtler on his mind, doubling-down on his authentic ear for Londoner-dialogue and his ability to bring the best out of seasoned British character-actors. This confidence in simply letting his characters hang out and be angry with each other is perhaps the most surprising thing about the film and how he has developed as a director. No special tricks are needed anymore.

Happy New Year, Colin Burstead

It questions whether its really worth it to expend so much energy to bring people who dislike each other so intensely together, and smartly pinpoints the ways anger can move in the wrong direction without anybody seemingly noticing. Family can be complicated beasts, full of contradictions and absurdities: the Burstead clan are no different.

At its centre is Neil Maskell, who really shines here as a man trying to bring his family together but finds himself slowly losing his cool. So often just another football geezer in forgettable outings such as St George’s Day and Rise of the Footsoldier, his performances for Ben Wheatley really show his range as an actor. He is supported by an all-star cast, including Bill Paterson as the failure of a father, Doon Mackichan as the overdramatic mother, Charles Dance as the charismatic uncle, Richard Glover as the mild-mannered Lord of the Manor, Asim Chaudhry as an unwanted gate-crasher, Mark Monero as Gini’s husband who doesn’t want to get involved and Alexandra Maria Lara as David’s German girlfriend who seems to think all of this is very amusing. This large cast, with supporting players often commenting on the main action, gives it a Greek-chorus-like feel, combining the snippy humour of British soap opera with kitchen-sink dramas like the movies of Mike Leigh.

Adding a larger context are the references to Brexit throughout (British people can hardly not talk about it these days), Colin’s New Year’s Eve plan referred to as “Project family” (i.e. “project fear”) and one character expressing his desire for an unachievable “Tony Benn Brexit”. It feels like no coincidence David absconded to Germany, the most powerful country in, and the de-facto leader of, the EU. Additionally, the constant wrangling by different, personally motivated characters to smooth over seemingly intractable family issues feels eerily similar to vested government interests leading the country to the potential disaster of a no deal Brexit. The inevitable doom of next spring lingers over the story like in a horror movie, adding a spicy socio-political edge.

As a British person who has seen over a hundred films released this year alone and found home-grown cinema to be having a pretty poor year – with no British films set in Britain in competition at either Berlinale or Cannes – a success such as Happy New Year, Colin Burstead finally shows off the wealth of acting talent available in the UK. Colin might be having no fun, but audiences certainly will. 

The BFI London Film Festival runs October 10 – 21. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.

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BFI London Film Festival

All Hail ‘The King’: David Michôd’s Latest is a Rewarding Slow-Burn

BFI London Film Festival 2019

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In today’s world, Shakespeare isn’t an easy sell. Perhaps due to its links with school days, or the running time of the features which take inspiration from the plays, adaptations of arguably the world’s greatest writer are few and far between, with higher quality works coming around at an even less consistent pace. Luckily, then, that The King falls into this category.

Combining both parts of Henry IV and the later Henry V is a smart move by co-writers David Michôd and Joel Edgerton; The King is thoughtfully paced without awkward transitions from one play to the next. It may prove too glacially paced for some — Shakespeare was never known for his action-heavy plays, after all — but it’s a testament to the adaptation of the works that the potential dryness in this the tale of a medieval king never comes to fruition. The final moments may seem tacked on, despite its source material, but by combining the trilogy, Michôd and Edgerton make a dense story more palatable, and a seemingly straightforward story more interesting.

The King battlefield

The King will be much compared to Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of Macbeth released in 2015, but apart from the fact that they are both Shakespeare plays filmed beautifully, that’s where the similarities end. Whilst Macbeth played with the surreal — a natural course as the story involves witches and premonitions — The King is rooted firmly in its realistic world. Had this not been based on the plays, it is simply another historical drama vying for our attention.

Timothée Chalamet is good as the titular king, but the part of Hal is arguably the least interesting in this iteration of Shakespeare’s ‘Henriad,’ so he has little to work with, remaining stoic and giving the occasional rousing speech; even Henry’s early hedonistic days are met with a dourness carried throughout the film. Chalamet, arguably one of the best young actors working today, is overshadowed by the supporting cast, particularly Joel Edgerton as Sir John Falstaff, friend and advisor to the king. Understated and naturalistic, Edgerton seems the most comfortable of the cast with the dialogue, understandable given the fact that he is co-writer, and has most likely lived with the play the longest.

The film is also beautiful to look at, mostly thanks to the wonderful cinematography by Adam Arkapaw. Imbued with the gray and blue hues present in many of Michod’s work — England has never looked colder with the sun (occasionally) beaming down on its fields — many beautiful shots are juxtaposed with the death so rife in Shakespeare’s works. A stitched tracking shot during a climactic battle sequence is quite literally muddy and unclear, but one of the most impressive sequences in the entire film, and worth witnessing on the big screen.

There is not much fun to be had with the ‘Henriad,’ so it’s no surprise that The King‘s lighter moments are rare. Edgerton occasionally brings a bit of humour to his role, but the comedic relief from the consistent war planning is unfortunately unintentional. Robert Pattinson is a fantastic actor, and his physical performance is not lacking, but, as The Dauphin, the Brit is burdened with the task of speaking in a French accent. Whilst not the most hideous fake accent ever to be heard, it is an incredibly distracting and odd note in the film.

Even with this slight mishap and a few short scenes that could probably be cut, The King is an adaptation worth watching. Methodically paced, its near three-hour runtime is for the patient and fans of extended conversations, but its subtlety and lack of urgency become the narrative, instead focusing on the mastery of the original art, with the added bonus of some great performances.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on October 3, 2019, as part of our coverage of the BFI London Film Festival.

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BFI London Film Festival

‘The Girl with a Bracelet’ is a Quiet Look at Courtroom Drama

BFI London Film Festival

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Accused of murdering her best friend, Lise (Melissa Guers) is arrested whilst spending time with her family at their beach house. Two years later, she is placed on trial; The Girl with a Bracelet follows the events at the courthouse, and the impact they have on her family.

An incredibly quiet movie, The Girl with a Bracelet avoids any last-minute dramatic revelations in court, family screaming matches, or tearful confessions. Somberly played by Guers, Lise herself is controlled and distant (we are later told that she has become withdrawn following the murder), and whilst the various members of her immediate family react differently to the ordeal, they are all plagued by the fatigue the last two years have brought them.

This makes for an interesting set-up to explore the effects the initial investigation and subsequent trial can have on a family — mother, father, daughter, son — and this avenue is pursued, but only to an extent. The father, Bruno (Roschdy Zem), is firm in his decision to attend the trial, whilst mother Céline (Chiara Mastrioanni) does not. Bruno is clearly not happy with her choice, whilst their daughter does not seem to be able to care less; yet, any discussion the parents might have had regarding the matter has already happened before we get to them.

In fact, many elements of the family drama seem to have already transpired between the time of the arrest and when we rejoin the characters two years later, so there is little to no dramatic tension in the household. Strangely, The Girl with a Bracelet seems to want to focus on the actual court proceedings themselves, taking a more factual and strategical approach. We know almost nothing of the case prior to the hearings, so facts unfold when the lawyers question those on the stand. This does make the film somewhat gripping, but with one minor flaw: whilst these characters know exactly what has transpired and what evidence they have been given, we do not, and some information could easily slip through the cracks if we’re not paying close enough attention.

But perhaps this is the point. Whether or not Lise is guilty is entirely up to the viewer, as one can weigh the evidence as the story plays out, almost like an interactive experience. This method is often (intentionally) frustrating; the prosecutor, played by Anaïs Demoustier has a job to do, and that can sometimes wander into comments far too personal for a court case. Meanwhile, Lise does little to help her situation in trying to establish her innocence, but this enhances the experience.

Without being showy or grandiose, The Girl with a Bracelet does well as a courtroom drama, despite there being little in the way of dramatics. It’s a purposefully ambiguous piece of work, but all the better for it — a chance for the audience to debate the outcome and present their arguments as they see fit.

The BFI London Film Festival runs October 2-13. Visit the official website for more info.

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BFI London Film Festival

‘Just Mercy’ is a Well-Made Though Entirely Standard Courtroom Drama

BFI London Film Festival

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Just Mercy is a typical example of the kind of movie awards season loves: based on the book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by lawyer Bryan Stevenson, which is based on a true story, the film maintains a theme of hope and plays as broadly to an audience as last year’s Best Picture winner, Green Book.

Just Mercy begins as the aforementioned Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) has just graduated law school and moved to Alabama to start the Equal Justice Initiative with Eva Ansley (Brie Larson). Hoping to provide legal support to those who cannot otherwise afford it, he meets Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx), a man who has been wrongfully convicted of the murder of a white woman.

Just Mercy movie

Although standard courtroom drama it may be, where Just Mercy prevails is in its compassion; it makes not only an argument against racism (the story is set from 1989 onwards, yet is still painfully relevant today), but also the death penalty, and in this regard proudly wears its heart on its sleeve. This is to the film’s credit, particularly in the case of the character of Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), who is neither exploited nor shied away from.

Just Mercy does utilize an incredibly straightforward narrative, however, and its broad strokes are occasionally frustrating. The antagonists are one step away from mustache-twirling, particularly Sheriff David Walker (Kirk Bovill), whose main purpose is to stare daggers into Stevenson as he strives to prove the innocence of his client. The negligence and corruption of the justice system is evident from the get go, but here is signposted with neon lights.

Despite this, Just Mercy couldn’t have gone wrong with its incredibly charismatic cast. Jordan, (always a welcome presence) is excellent, wisely knowing when to pull back; he refuses to make the movie all about his performance. He also has good chemistry with Larson, who seems to be on the same wavelength. This is only partly Ansley’s story, and Larson takes a back seat whilst maintaining the strength of the character; she is memorable as the woman who works with Stevenson, as opposed to for him — an important distinction made without shining a spotlight on it.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, The Glass Castle) is in no doubt talented and directs solidly, but there is nothing remarkable about his execution. Whilst never dull, the film reaches from A to B efficiently, but does little to make it stand out from the crowd. It may not become an instant classic, and is far from the most exciting film released this year, but what Just Mercy lacks in flair, it makes up for in likable performances and deeply felt convictions.

The BFI London Film Festival runs October 2-13. Visit the official website for more info.

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