Colin Burstead (Neil Maskell) has decided to do something good for his extended family this year, and with Christmas out of the way he has hired a country house to hold a New Year's party for them all. Well, almost all: his brother David (Sam Riley) has expressly not been invited after the trouble he has caused down the years, and most of them have not seen him in over half the decade, truly the black sheep of the family. Except nobody told the brothers' sister Gini (Hayley Squires) that David should not be there, and as a result she has invited him despite all the bad blood, for she thought it would be a nice surprise for their mother Sandy (Doon Mackichan). It's a surprise, all right...
This Ben Wheatley film, which he directed and wrote (after an improvised fashion), was a lot more low key than the efforts he had been producing in the years previous, this was not some high concept action thriller or science fiction movie, it was a return to his roots in a family drama as his first film Down Terrace had been. At least superficially, as that debut had been a tense character piece that could be regarded from some angles as loosely a horror movie, certainly in the structure it applied and the violence that resulted, yet here there was no bloodshed, though that may have been what some of the partygoers had in mind when a stormcloud of ill-feeling rained on everyone's parade.
That said, while there were no shortages of films, television dramas and plays that detailed just how terribly people behave with their families around the festive season, Wheatley was not quite as interested in depicting the clichés of that seasonal fare as he initially appeared (this was reminiscent of the TV adaptation of Alan Ayckbourne's Season's Greetings). Yes, there was a packed narrative of the resentments of those involved bubbling up to the surface, as you would have anticipated, but while there was shouting and arguments, the fact that this was supposed to be a celebration mitigated against anyone present actually throwing a punch, and there may have been much partaking of alcoholic beverages, but nobody got so drunk they were out of control.
If anything, Wheatley overstuffed his film with subplots to emphasise how everyone had their issues with at least one sibling, parent or other relation - there were even ex-boyfriends and girlfriends here. Using a fast-cutting style, there was a restlessness to the arrangement here that betrayed a nervy quality both in the personas of those we were watching and the filmmakers, as if they had a lot to say but were not wholly confident they were putting it across sufficiently well. If his J.G. Ballard adaptation High Rise had been a state of the nation address seen through the science fiction of the nineteen-seventies, this dropped any such devices and genre and was more direct, though the more contrived moments to make this sound current with snippets of political reference and conversation did come across as just that: contrived.
Really, this was a demonstration of how many Brits, despite the differences and divisions foisted upon us by politics, could get along with each other if the circumstances were amenable to it. Although the titular Colin believes he is the unifying force in his brood, the opposite is revealed as true, and the most divisive member turns out to be the one who can bring them together purely by saying he's sorry, he was wrong, he made mistakes, but he didn't want to ruin anyone's life (or evening). The forgiveness that this brings about is surprisingly sweet considering the abrasiveness of what humour there was, and though it could have been sharper, that sense of needing to start over, to do it better and let bygones be bygones to move forward was as pertinent as Wheatley and his actors and crew wanted to be. With an ensemble cast designed to represent all strata of British society, it was a shade self-conscious, but in effect proved its director may have been better at this smaller scale work than his bigger projects. Music by Clint Mansell.