Sunday 23 December 2012


(Ben Wheatley, 2012)

There's a rare interest in Wheatley's work in the ancient Britain still visible underneath the edges of the modern nation. It's there in his last film, the superb horror thriller Kill List, which focuses on that old, weird pagan Island by depicting the strangeness of the modern landscape - the anonymity of new towns and retail parks, industrial estates and motorway hotels - in contrast with the corn fields, woodland and the wildlife that has been around for centuries. The horrific finale of that film shifts explicitly into pagan territory.
Sightseers is a very different film; written by its stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, its an extremely black comedy following their characters, Chris and Tina, a relatively new couple, as they take a trip through Northern England in a caravan, enjoying such attractions as the Blue John Cavern and a pencil museum. Along the way, Tina learns that Chris is a murderer who "just wants to be feared and respected", but is not above beating to death anybody who annoys him. Tina embraces her own homicidal side as they go, but tensions begin to effect their relationship too...
The travelogue structure allows Wheatley to depict that pagan Britain once again, as his characters trudge across fields, hug sacred stones, follow ley-lines, witness shamans sacrifice chickens, and visit ancient caves. Apart from the prologue, set in Alice's midlands home, where her domineering mother is appalled by their plans, urban Britain is entirely ignored by Sightseers. Instead, Wheatley ensures that the often grim landscapes of Yorkshire and Humberside look desolately stunning throughout; magnificently bleak in some scenes, and charmingly dull in others.
But the core of the film is the relationship between the two leads. Lowe and Oram are both fabulous here; funny and convincing, making their near-Dickensian caricatures feel more like living and breathing people than they have any right to. That's a problem with the film in general; so many of the middle class characters they encounter (and kill) are merely tissue-thin stereotypes it strains credulity and interest.
Countering that, Wheatley and his writer-performers try out a grab-bag of comic approaches. Here we get a bit of classic social awkwardness/comedy of embarrassment, a little slapstick, much grotesque violence played purely for laughs, some hilarious deadpan dialogue, and many quirkily memorable comic details. It variously recalls Nuts In May, Withnail & I and much recent dark British tv comedy. It mostly works, even if it runs out of steam some way before the end, and its not really saying much of anything beyond some generally clumsy light satire aimed at the British middle classes.
But it looks nice, has a great soundtrack - cover versions of Donovan's "Season of the Witch" memorably play over two of the murders - and Wheatley's direction is typically superb, as are the cast.

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