Ben Wheatley says British cinema is guilty of being “totally apolitical”

The director discusses tackling class and Brexit in his new film Happy New Year, Colin Burstead.

Words and interview

Lou Thomas


Ahead of the release of his seventh feature, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, writer/director Ben Wheatley has revealed his thoughts on the state of British cinema – specifically its conspicuous absence of politics.

“Most of British cinema is totally apolitical or very vanilla in that respect,” says Wheatley. “It’s either so period that it’s got nothing to do with anything, or it’s the rest of the cinema we watch, which is genre, which doesn’t touch upon it.”

According to Wheatley, his new film wears its politics on its sleeve “heavily”. Neil Maskell plays the eponymous Colin, a put-upon middle-aged man who throws a party for his extended family on New Year’s Eve. Colin soon comes under pressure from his financially strained parents, while the spectre of Brexit looms large and is explicitly referenced.

“I look at my own experience of people trying to digest the current political system,” adds Wheatley. “No one ever explains it. No one ever sits down and says what their own point of view is. The papers never say. You never can get to the bottom of what has actually happened. Even now with Brexit so far on, it’s very difficult to unravel what the fuck actually happened or who’s responsible for it.”

So how much is Wheatley interested in exploring class as a filmmaker? “I’m in the middle of it. We all are and all our perspectives are affected by it. I’m trying to make stuff from my own perspective and I think that’s the most you can do as a creative person – to try and keep it as close to your experience as you can. Otherwise you’re lost. I find it hard to project too far out of what I know because you’re assuming a lot.”

He continues, “It’s quite a big thing that consumes us all, class. Everything ties back to it in the end and it’s to do with how you went to school, how you grew up and where your confidence is at – which is a particular class thing, the kind of silent thing which pushes people up and pulls people down without even knowing it.”

His films Down Terrace, High-Rise, Free Fire each focus on dysfunctional family units (whether these by birth, surrogate or extended), and Wheatley has previously combined broader class issues with familial strife. Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is the first where Wheatley, who wrote and directed the film, has combined these two concerns.

“I always think about it in terms of the family itself,” he says. “A family in terms of class – not to use torturous metaphors – I always think of it as [like] landing boats in Normandy. Each generation gets a little bit further up the beach. Some of them are way ahead and some of them are just getting on the boat.

“I think that’s the difference when you look at some families. In my family, I’m the first person to have gone to university and that’s a massive thing, it’s not to be taken lightly. When people go, ‘I’m from a family of teachers or doctors’, it’s a totally different thing. It’s not anybody’s fault but it does make a difference to how you are and how you speak, how you interact with people and how you feel about stuff.”

Wheatley is in talks to write a TV series based on some of the same characters in Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, ahead of shooting his adaption of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca in 2019.

Following a limited theatrical release, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead airs on BBC2 at 10.30pm 30 December, and will then be available on iPlayer for one year.

Published 12 Dec 2018

Tags: Ben Wheatley Neil Maskell

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