Sightseers is a black comedy from micro budget Director Ben Wheatley. Written by and starring Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, the film follows a couple on a caravanning holiday around the rural areas of Northern England. Chris is interesting in finding his verve while he attempts to write a book and brings his girlfriend Tina along as his muse. Tina has a co dependant relationship with her elderly mother who blames her for killing their dog Poppy a year earlier. Despite her mother’s best efforts to stop her, Tina travels with Chris visiting such wonders as The Lakeland Pencil Museum and Crich Tramway Museum. The trip faces problems though as both Tina and Chris can’t help murdering people they meet who annoy or look down on them
I saw Director Wheatley’s critical hit Kill List last year and hated it. Its violence made me nauseous and my girlfriend wanted to walk out, as many others in our screening did. Despite this I went along to Wheatley’s latest (minus my girlfriend who refused), hoping to give the Director another chance. He is a darling of the British film industry at the moment with every professional critic seemingly in love with his violent microcosmic filmmaking that depicts every day British life in extraordinary ways. In the end I’m glad I caught Sightseers. It’s a very funny and odd story that features some stunning scenery and two well measured comedic performances.
The writers first came up with the character whilst on tour with Steve Coogan and you can see a little of this film in Coogan and Rob Brydon’s The Trip. For their mocumentary The Trip Coogan and Brydon played versions of themselves travelling around Northern England. Similar locations are used for this film which discovers some equally stunning landscapes. The film also has parallels with God Bless America. In both films the central characters go on a road trip, killing people they despise along the way. In God Bless America though the character think big, taking on TV and the media whereas for Sightseers the targets are people who drop litter or often people who believe they are superior to Tina and Chris because of where they are from or what they do. After the bludgeoning to death of one posh twerp, Chris says to Tina that we need to take the countryside back from them. The “we” he refers to are the masses. The film makes a statement about how the British countryside still seems like a folly for the rich. Whereas in centuries gone by the rich would own the land, hunt and tax the poor, now they drive their 4x4s around looking down on those who they deem unsophisticated or uneducated. Unemployed Tina and Chris from the West Midlands are just the sort of people they mean. The entire film can be seen as being about the current financial crisis.
The film’s class or economic message is often overshadowed by the comedy or violence. I was pleased to see that the violence wasn’t quite as graphic or gruesome as in Kill List but there are still some fairly grizzly shots of caved in skulls and gushing wounds. This is a laugh out loud funny film too. The characters are pitch perfect and the humour very dark. This isn’t a broad, knockabout comedy. Even so there are some terrific moments, many of which come from Tina who is almost childlike and naive at times due to her sheltered upbringing. It will often surprise you with where it goes and the character dynamic shifts with hilarious and gruesome consequences. There is a kind of teacher/student feel to the violence which shifts with time. It’s a shame that a lot of the best lines are to be found in the trailer but unlike some comedies there are still plenty of laughs to be found that aren’t in the adverts.
For a film shot on a shoestring budget, albeit a much larger one that the Director’s previous films, Sightseers looks phenomenal. Helped no end by the attractive locations the film never looks cheap except in its depiction of Tina and Chris’ lives. It is obvious from their clothes and caravan etc that they aren’t wealthy but the film itself looks rich. Wheatley’s assured direction and Laurie Rose’s beautiful cinematography combine the picturesque vistas and working class world of the characters into a beautiful world which feels very familiar to me. Indeed the entire film was shot within about a hundred miles of where I am currently writing this. Watching it made me want to leave the city more often and head into the countryside. I’m going to make sure that I don’t upset anyone while I’m there though.
Overall Sightseers is a very good film which features some great comedy, a mesmerising story and interesting character. Although it is short I was occasionally bored but it is never long before a killer line or killer blow is delivered to liven things up. Oram and Lowe are excellent and I’m beginning to see what all the fuss is about with regards to the Director. There are shades of Scorsese and Loach and I'm looking forward to seeing what he comes up with next.