When it was announced that director Ben Wheatley would follow his chilling sophomore feature Kill List with a comedy, it would have been entirely reasonable to breathe a sigh of relief. The savage, explicitly violent Kill List was as disturbing as they come; an unsettlingly realistic film with an interest in the occult that recalled the great British horrors of the 1970s (think Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man).
Yet anyone familiar with Wheatley’s blackly comic debut Down Terrace would be unsurprised to discover that Sightseers is hardly Love Actually. Instead, it shares misanthropic DNA with Kill List, a dark human story this time filtered through Wheatley’s unique comic sensibility. His Britain is one where a quaint caravanning holiday can become a Badlands-style massacre. In Sightseers it does just that and it is a glorious cause for laughter.
At the beginning of Sightseers we meet Tina (Alice Lowe), in her thirties and still living at home with her mother. Tina is invited on a caravanning holiday with her new boyfriend Chris (Steve Oram), a Brummie in possession of a luxuriant ginger beard. Tina’s mother is unimpressed by Chris, but the offer of a trip to Crich Tram Museum cements Tina’s defiant decision to fly the nest.
Initially Chris comes across only as odd as you’d expect for a caravanning enthusiast, that is until he displays an unhealthy loathing for litterbugs. After a hostile encounter with a serial litterer at the Tram Museum, things take a turn for the worse, and Tina’s holiday becomes something more than a jolly jaunt around the north of England.
Lowe and Oram’s script is as witty as it is cruel; rude jokes, sight gags, and moments of sheer maliciousness all demand laughs. As the writers and lead performers of Sightseers it is hard to separate the actors from their creations, so rarely does the humour fall flat. As director, Wheatley handles jokes with great effect, proving his dexterousness in the shift from horror to comedy.
As well as laughs, there is a subversive streak to be found in the construction of Sightseers. During one key murder scene Wheatley includes the words to ‘And did those feet in ancient time’, by William Blake, in voice over. Today these words are prominently known as the Lyrics to the hymn Jerusalem, an anthem associated with a sense of British patriotism.
The satire to be found in Sightseers also brings to mind a bygone generation of British directors like Lindsay Anderson, helmer of the extraordinary If…. and O Lucky Man!. In the darker moments Wheatley’s work also brings to mind the films of Nicholas Roeg and Robin Hardy. While Wheatley treats patriotism with irony, he is certainly concerned with the Britishness of his film.
Wheatley contrasts mundane interior locations with extraordinary landscapes to expose much more of England than we are used to in British cinema. The landscape shots in Sightseers, lensed by cinematographer Laurie Rose, are utterly stunning. Wheatley’s choice of locations evokes the mystery of Britain’s prehistoric and pre-Christian past with a Herzogian curiosity; this is particularly evident when, as with the boat in Fitzcarraldo, the pair drag the caravan up a mountain.
At times the overall construction of Sightseers feels a little jumpy, with undesirable cuts to black to break up the scenes. The large amount of improvisation involved in creating Sightseers is probably to blame for the occasional clunks, but this is of little consequence as the overall story arc comes together in a maliciously funny fashion.
Finally, Wheatley’s choice of music deserves praise. The anthems for the odd couple are 80′s staples ‘Tainted Love’ by Soft Cell and ‘The Power of Love’ by Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Psychedelic 60’s rock like ‘Season of the Witch’ by Vanilla Fudge pronounces Wheatley’s love of the weird, while German masters Popul Vuh help to further transport us to that elusive Herzogian place.
Ultimately the film, like the soundtrack, is as emotionally rousing as it is amusing. Sightseers is the anorak-clad version of True Romance that you’ve always wished for. It is Bonnie and Clyde for the British Isles. It is Badlands with more rain. Cinema just doesn’t get much better than that.
Sightseers is in cinemas from Friday. Contributor Tom Cottey can be followed on Twitter @tcottey.
The Story of Lovers’ Rock director Menelik Shabazz – who we interviewed last September about his superb documentary – has written a new play entitled The Awaken One, and is using the innovative crowd-funding platform IndieGoGo to promote, and raise funds for, the project. For more information about The Awaken One, and to find out how to donate, please click through to this link.
Photo credit: Yves Salmon
In Dexter Fletcher’s largely impressive directorial debut Wild Bill, classic Western tropes merge with a recognisably British strain of crime cinema to create an odd, affecting snapshot of troubled father-son relationships within an economically depressed climate.
16-year-old Dean (Will Poulter) lives with his 11-year-old brother Jimmy (Sammy Williams) high up in a barren East End council flat. Old before his time and subsisting on a diet of toast and water, he nevertheless conjures the energy to parent Jimmy and hold down a job as a construction worker on the putative Olympics site. However, his world is about to be turned upside down by the return from incarceration after 8 years of his father; the eponymous Bill (Charlie Creed-Miles).
Almost as soon as the dishevelled, dissolute Bill returns, he comes under pressure from the local band of villains to disappear again, sharpish. Matters are made worse when they poach an impressionable Jimmy for use as a drug mule. Fletcher accomplishes a skilful narrative balancing act, pitting Dean’s personal development (entailing a softening from cynicism into youth) against Bill’s need to eschew his childish irresponsibility and finally become a man under the constant threat of violence. The family dynamic is convincingly fraught and touching, and the inexorable, ticking clock pacing of the script, though occasionally schematic in plot turn, is redolent of High Noon. All the while, the tension of the story is augmented by the striking contrast between the expanding Olympics site which towers over the characters, and the corrosive poverty and criminality which lies not 100 yards away.
Fletcher, previously a child actor (The Elephant Man, The Long Good Friday) clearly has a way with the young thesps, coaxing from them convincing, open performances. Poulter as Dean is particularly strong as a young man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Meanwhile, Nil By Mouth‘s flinty-eyed Creed-Miles (who resembles a grizzled Cockney cousin of Billy Bob Thornton) shifts through the gears from self-pity to steely resolve with consummate skill.
Other elements of the film language coalesce to create a strong sense of place. The locations are expertly chosen, and root the narrative in contemporary themes of economic depression and area regeneration. The sheer physical remove of the family’s council flat spatially and thematically isolates them, and recalls the cramped, pathos-fuelled social dislocation of Only Fools And Horses‘ Trotter clan. Furthermore, the lofty deposition allows cinematographer George Richmond to capture some breathtakingly steely panoramas of the capital.
Wild Bill‘s finest moment by some distance occurs when Bill, alongside Jimmy, releases a paper aeroplane from their balcony. The plane darts out into the grey-blue sky, but the anticipated cut doesn’t come; instead, Richmond follows the darting projectile with delicate skill, and for a moment, the world – real and imagined – disappears, with father and son, director and cinematographer, actor and audience united in the joy, suspense and ultimate release of the sequence. It’s sheer poetry.
The music and soundtrack choices are uniformly excellent and rootsy, from the booming bass of The Clash’s ‘The Guns Of Brixton’, through a cracking selection of dub reggae, and finally Mark Hollis’ ‘Watershed’, recalling Jacques Audiard’s use of Talk Talk’s menacingly bucolic music in his 2010 masterpiece A Prophet.
However, as impressive as it is in many ways, Wild Bill is not without its flaws, the most egregious of which is a retrograde approach to its female characters. The biggest misstep is an alarmingly distasteful scene in which a compliant, drug-addicted prostitute (Liz White, who makes the most of a thankless role) is first offered to Dean as a birthday present before being rejected and roundly humiliated. It leaves a nasty taste in the mouth that’s hard to shake, and calcifies the film’s unsophisticated representation of the fairer sex. While Bill’s given a luxuriantly indulgent shot at redemption, Jimmy and Dean’s mum is simply nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile young parent Steph, while played with real spirit by Charlotte Spencer, is only really there to advance the plot, and to make Dean feel better about himself. Defenders of the film’s attitude to women may argue that it simply reflects the macho milieu in which it’s set, but there’s little excuse for the key women characters to be so comprehensively denied a voice.
Furthermore, though the principal actors do a sterling job, the remainder of the casting is rather hit-and-miss. Misfits’ Iwan Rheon is appallingly cast and poorly written as a comedy rudeboy, while many of the bigger names who appear (including Marc Warren as a drunken layabout and Olivia Williams as Bill’s case worker) are simply distracting, and take away from the carefully constructed aura of jumpy menace that’s created elsewhere. The increasingly cameo-friendly Andy Serkis (all that mo-cap must really knacker a man out) also turns up in an incongruously flashy role as a sleazy gang honcho, alarmingly similar to the one he played in 2011 hyper-turkey Brighton Rock.
On balance though, the positives outweight the negatives, and one would need a heart of granite to not be moved by the gentle development of the relationship between father and son, and Bill’s late, late coming of age (however much it ultimately recourses to neolithic manifestations of primal masculine identity). Wild Bill is a stylish, savvy, funny and heartfelt work which hints at greater things to come from its director, and deserves to sit alongside the likes of Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa in the canon of hard, sentimental portraits of London’s darker recesses.