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British Film Review: Sightseers
Review By Alexa Dalby
Since its acclaimed screening in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes, Ben Wheatley’s blackly comic third film Sightseers has had so much pre-release publicity that it’s no secret that serial killers Chris and Tina leave a trail of carnage in their wake as they tour a series of unsuspecting and sometimes kitsch heritage sites. Both Screen International and the Guardian have described the film as Nuts in May meets Badlands, though admitting this doesn’t do justice to just how funny it is.
Sightseers owes much of its success to the strength of its two quirky central characters, richly comic creations developed over several years by co-writers and co-stars comedians Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, after they first met in a comedy club in Ealing.
Ginger-bearded Chris bristles with easily ignited indignation. Wondering, naive Tina lives with her controlling mother, a strategic invalid. Both Chris and Tina are complex, marginally inadequate thirty-something loners from the suburban West Midlands looking for love, who – nice touch, which speaks volumes about their aspirations – met in a capoeira class. Now they’ve found each other, as a couple they can take on the world.
Though it’s early in their relationship, Chris invites Tina to join him on their first holiday together, touring heritage sites in Yorkshire and Cumbria in his traditional Abbey Oxford caravan. What could be more British than that? Only the miserable weather, which necessitates cagoule wearing throughout, and also – forgive me – their dry Brummie accents, capable of turning the words “her sanctum” – where Tina’s mother keeps her paintings – into a double entendre.
“We both liked British holidays – we thought it would be a laugh to have Brummies killing people and going to castles,” Steve and Alice said at a Q&A after a screening. Sightseers was developed as a TV idea but didn’t get anywhere, it was turned down as “too black”. They sent a short film taster to Edward Wright, who passed it on to Ben Wheatley, director of the acclaimed Kill List. “The script fitted with other movies I’d done, it was a progression of those kinds of characters. What genre is it? Movies I’d like to see!” he said.
“The characters are rooted in reality,” Steve and Alice said, “If the audience believes they are real, then the violence and comedy works. We really felt you had to care about the relationship. The killings are almost a metaphor with the trials the couple are going through. We wanted people to identify with the experience of going on holiday, with them as antiheroes.” The victims are a kind of wish fulfilment.
To the strains of Tainted Love, Chris and Tina motor to their first destination, Crick Tramway Village. There they meet the first of a series of people who irritate them by transgressing Chris’s moral code – dropping litter! in a heritage site! – with unexpectedly fatal consequences for the offender. In this case, Chris accidentally on purpose reverses the caravan into him, creating sudden sexual arousal for himself and Tina.
As Chris’s behavior increasingly reveals his psychopathic tendencies, Tina’s initial incredulity turns to complicity. When she accepts the mint Chris offers, their pact is sealed. The pair’s next stop at a campsite, Dingley Dell, neatly satirizes the New Age world of yurts and communal drumming, but also the self-contained world of Tina and Chris, as she proudly dons the home-knitted pink crotchless underwear set she has made to seduce him. Chris bludgeons to death a neighboring caravan owner who fills him with class envy – but whose identity as a published author, something he’s been unable to accomplish himself, he starts to assume, seeing Tina as his muse. Tina’s response is to be determined it won’t ruin their holiday: both are willing to compromise to avoid being alone.
Onward to Blue John Cavern and Fountains Abbey. The Yorkshire locations were chosen by Steve Oram’s dad, a Yorkshireman, who designed their route. “It was a luxury to get inspiration from those places and the film comes from a place of genuine affection for them,” he said. They researched the route by going on the road in a caravan together for a week, with a cameraman, “to see who annoyed us most!”.
Amid the ruins at Fountain Abbey, John Hurt’s voiceover recitation of Blake’s Jerusalem is “like an ancient king”. When an officious rambler, who objects to Tina allowing ‘her’ dog (misappropriated from their last victim) to leave excrement on the monuments, threatens to report them to the National Trust, Chris brutally, and with lurid foley sound effects, disposes of him. Chris brushes this off: “He’s not a person, he’s a Daily Mail reader.” “You have to see the violence,” Ben added, “Otherwise the film maker looks like he doesn’t care.”
Serial killing for Chris and Tina has become personal empowerment. We have been led into the story through Tina’s perspective, and we see her joining in and becoming a serial killer as well and, in fact, becoming the stronger of the two. And in comedy terms, it’s the liberating antithesis of British stoicism, of putting up with things and apologizing.
When an annoyingly noisy hen party interrupts the couple’s romantic restaurant dinner, Tina pushes the bride-to-be over the precipice outside. Although murdering innocent people wasn’t something Tina had previously considered, she realizes, Chris’s bloodlust has unleashed something in her and she goes for it. It’s her first murder and she expects Chris to be pleased. But they have their first argument and Tina visits the Keswick Pencil Museum on her own, in a bleakly comic scene writing a letter to Chris with a giant pencil almost as big as she is, and making an anguished phone call home: “It’s all gone wrong, Mum!”.
The deaths pile up as they drive north through a series of increasingly wild beauty spots filmed as landscape panoramas – Tina, now significantly at the wheel, casually knocking a jogger off the road in a hit and run. Chris is panicked by Tina’s recklessness and the frequency with which they are now racking up deaths: “I’ve done more murders in three days with you than I did in the six months since I got made redundant!” he complains.
As their relationship develops, the weather, always overcast, worsens accordingly. The landscape becomes more menacing and in a hail-lashed passing place on the edge of a slatey mountainside, Chris and Tina are joined by Martin (Richard Glover), whom they met previously, in his ludicrous, self-built pedal-powered carapod (a one-man caravan on wheels). After a hideously cringe-making evening in the caravan, Martin makes an excuse and leaves, packing himself into his carapod for an early night. Unfortunately, he’s parked temptingly on a cliff, the by-now-inevitable happens and things go over the edge – for Tina, after a row with Chris, metaphorically – but for Martin, literally.
There’s no turning back now, they’ve burnt their boats – actually, their caravan – and on remote Ribblehead Viaduct, the lovers make a tragi-comic suicide pact and holding hands, as The Power of Love fills the soundtrack, they prepare to jump… But do they?
The film was shot in chronological order, taking the locations as they found them – the stone-hugging woman in the background in one scene, for example, which they left in. “The main thing was the weather – all kinds. But we shot really quickly, so there were no problems. When we were shooting the scene up the mountain and it started sleeting – well, one man’s weather is another man’s production value!” Ben said. “We got the sleet for free!” Luckily, the costumes were already cagoules.
Steve and Alice say their influences for Sightseers were Mike Leigh, Ealing Studios films such as Kind Hearts and Coronets, Badlands – where “it’s normal people”, The Honeymoon Killers and American road movies. Ben mentions Grey Gardens – “observational stuff” – and The Battle of Algiers.
Sightseers leads its audience complicity to a very dark but very funny place where, the more gruesome the murder, the louder you laugh. Its road movie set-up uses the British countryside settings in an original way and the direction hits a consistently droll tone. It is Ben Wheatley’s third film, and is described by its producers, who also produced his violent and well-reviewed horror Kill List, as “not as horrible” and “lighter”, despite its murderous subject matter. It has just gained seven nominations at the British Independent Film Awards. At last, a really well-scripted and well-directed, funny British comedy. And who hasn’t, however fleetingly, had their own fantasy of doing the same as Chris and Tina? Noisy popcorn eaters in the cinema, anyone?
Related Article - Britflicks's Stuart Wright Talks To 'Sightseers' Writers/Stars Alice Lowe & Steve Oram.
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