At last! An award-winning British film, this time the third by Ben Wheatley, who already has two low-budget black comedy/thrillers under his belt, Down Terraceand Kill List.British through and through, even the screenplay is written by its two co-stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram. Their performances as a result are utterly convincing and give new meaning to the phrase dead-pan.
Drawing from a legacy that includes Kind Hearts and Coronets, Bonnie and Clyde, with echoes of Alan Bennett and Mike Leigh, Sightseerstells the story of two star-crossed (tongue-in-cheek here) young-ish lovers. Tina (Lowe) lives with her domineering mother (Eileen Davies); they are both mourning the death of their dog Poppy, and Tina knits nervously to while away the hours. Chris (Oram), new boyfriend, hated naturally enough by mum, decides to take Tina away from it all, on an ‘erotic odyssey’ in a caravan –‘if the caravan’s a-rocking don’t come a-knocking’ as Tina warns a fellow-camper.
Chris soon shows what we are already suspecting, that he is disturbed – he wears a kagool, is red-headed and has a beard after all, and his idea of a romantic holiday takes in Britain’s most banal ‘visitor attractions’ such as the Ribble viaduct, the Keswick Pencil Museum and the National Tramway Museum. Prone to uncontrollable fits of rage – directed at litterers, the National Trust, the upper classes ‘he’s not a person, he’s a Daily Mail reader’ – he thinks nothing of spoiling their holiday by random acts of murder, ruthlessly dealing with anyone who offends him for the slightest – and I mean slightest – reason. Tina – who is possibly nice, but dim, is caught between glorifying in her lover’s acts, shopping him to the police or adopting an attitude of if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
Wheatley’s skill as a director is to juxtapose this psychopathic couple with the glorious British countryside, mundane caravan camp-sites, and introduce characterisations of the Everyman Brit on holiday, in true Mike Leigh style. There’s the older couple they befriend at Fountains Abbey; the OCD couple with a spotless caravan who give rise to envy on both parts: he is a published writer – something Chris is aspiring to become on this trip, with Tina as his ‘Muse’ – and they have a cheeky HMV dog to die for; and batty Martin who has invented a capsule for camping cyclists. Which of these chance encounters, we wonder, will prove to be fatal?
There’s humour a-plenty, some real laugh-out-loud moments, for instance when we find out just how Poppy met her end and when Tina tries to be sexy and tells Chris she has no knickers on (in a restaurant) only to reveal she’s wearing tights. Even the soundtrack is funny, the atmospheric original music being put in the shade by the totally appropriate anthem Tainted Love.There are even some moments of poignancy such as when a dejected Tina buys a giant pencil in the Keswick museum and tries to express her emotions.
In many ways it’s a clever film; but it did run out of steam towards the end, which was a bit of a cop-out. I was not at all upset by the blood and gore, and even the morality – or immorality – of Chris and Tina. Like Django Unchained and the Ealing Comedies, Sightseers cannot be taken literally; it is a spoof, black comedy at its almost best. It is a lament for the vandalisation of the British countryside and of our culture by such creatures as Chris and Tina: people who think they belong but are, in fact, destructive outsiders.