In a year where Great Britain has been celebrated by its Queen’s jubilee, a successful Olympics and the fiftieth anniversary of its greatest cinematic icon, there’s something gleefully appropriate about the year’s final show of national identity tearing the pomposity and circumstance down into the mud. Brits often cite self-deprecation as a shared characteristic, and Sightseers is a movie which delights in pettiness rather than pagentry, a nation of grumblers as frustrated by manners, history and the countryside as they are in love with them.
In America, social rebellion has been given a glamourous veneer by such movies as Natural Born Killers or Bonnie And Clyde, perpetuating a myth of the heroic outlaw originating in the tales of the Old West. Britain has its romantic ideals too, but places as much value in subverting as championing them: in a year where Judi Dench’s recital of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ provided a moment of unashamedly thrilling patriotism, Ben Wheatley’s use of Blake’s ‘Jersualem’ over a man beating a fellow rambler to death following an argument about dog excrement becomes all the more perfect.
[This review was originally published last year for the UK release of Sightseers. It has been reposted to coincide with the US release of the film.]
Director: Ben Wheatley
Release Date: May 10, 2013
Truth is, Sightseers‘ humour feels so specific to British stereotypes and insecurities that it’s difficult to imagine the movie travelling with much success. Attack The Block was occasionally met with confusion at the density of the characters’ accents, but Ben Wheatley not only wheels out the regional voices, but concerns too: does any other nation share the love-hate relationship with its countryside as Britain does, or the people who inhabit (or visit) it? What will Americans make of the movie’s amused respect for such inane eccentricities as a pencil museum, crumbling viaducts, or tour guides dedicated to the history of tramlines? Other countries may have their share of nutcases, but Britain seems the only one to consider them national treasures even while acknowledging their lunacy.
That dichotomy is where the movie mines its pitch-black comedy. The plot sends a reclusive middle-aged woman named Tina on a caravan holiday, as much to escape her manipulative mother as embark on the ‘sexual odyssey’ promised by her cheerful, if somewhat bitter new boyfriend, Chris. As they trawl the many ridiculous tourist ‘attractions’ littering rural England, it becomes clear that Chris’ passive-aggressive streak is tied to a murderous self-righteousness. As his body count rises, Tina’s fear gives way to a newfound sense of liberation, revealing a psychotic streak even wilder than that of her boyfriend.
The movie delights in finding increasingly gory ways to exterminate such stereotypes as the private school-educated over-achiever, the pernickity environmentalist, the debauched bride-to-be on her hen night celebrations. The irony, naturally, is that as much as Chris and Tina are infuriated by these people, so too do they share many of their traits. Chris’ first kill revolves around avenging the inconsiderate littering of a public place, an annoyance expressed against Tina by his second victim. Tina, too, may have nothing but contempt for the loose morals of the woman wrapping her tongue around her boyfriend’s tonsils, but is in the midst of a depraved sexual revolution of her own.
These vignettes give the movie an episodic feel which prevents the story from flowing completely smoothly, but the thematic thoroughfare is so strong and each grisly murder framed in such stunning countryside vistas (making it one of the year’s most beautiful movies) that any complaints become incidental. The movie shares a number of traits with last year’s barmstorming Kill List, not to mention Wheatley’s cinematic debut Down Terrace, particularly a fascination with psychotically unstable relationships and a refusal to offer concrete answers to the topical ideas – the recession’s creation of an angry, unemployed underclass is briefly but powerfully hinted at – it plays around with.
In addition to having written the screenplay, Alice Lowe and Steve Oram give powerful, layered performances which make Tina and Chris fascinating and entertainingly unhinged company, despite becoming increasingly unsympathetic as their week-long journey proceeds. Lowe, in particular, transitions her character from buttoned-up wallflower to lusty psychotic without a hint of contrivance, rooted in her need to break out of the mental shackles her loathsome mother (Eileen Davies) bound her in. Apart from nebbish innocent Martin – who gets a great sight gag with a runaway sleeping pod – the supporting cast is restricted to cameos, but are great fun as fodder for the central pair’s murderous impulses.
The symbolism and ironic music choices may be laid on a little thick, and anyone expecting a laugh-a-minute comedy will come as unstuck as those who went into Kill List expecting a routine hitman thriller, but Wheatley’s genre-blending revisionism and eye for dramatic visuals make Sightseers every bit as distinctive, exciting, and almost certainly divisive, as its predecessor. Great Britain may have spent the past year enrapturing the world in patriotic pagentry, but where Bond and his Queen (Elizabeth, not M) celebrated the country’s historic romanticism, it’s two complaining, cagoule-wearing caravaners slaughtering their way across the countryside who prove unexpectedly perfect embodiments of the messy, bleakly funny reality.