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.