Just out of the Christmas period with all it’s related stress, pressure and forced jollity. I’m not being all curmudgeonly here but it does become a bit wearing after a while. I gave myself a smashing present however, sitting myself down with an assortment of festive treats in front of Ben Wheatley’s SIGHTSEERS.
I’ve always been reluctant to set pen to paper (or trembling finger to keyboard, more accurately) regarding Mr Wheatley, as everything I’ve seen from him has been of such quality that I simply could not do his offerings justice – but this one has compelled me to action.
A brief synopsis is that Chris takes his new girlfriend, Tina, away from her over-bearing & self-absorbed mother for a week on a lovely caravan holiday to an assortment of Britain’s equally banal & fascinating minor tourist attractions. During the formative stages of the holiday, Chris begins to demonstrate his inner turmoils and anger towards much of the human race he’s encountered, which culminates in violence & murder most foul. It’s very easy to say the film then becomes a road movie of star-crossed lovers, which it essentially does but it is SO much more than this. I’ll have to break this down into it’s constituent parts to adequately report this to you, so do bear with me…
Firstly, the quality of the screenplay, written by Alice Lowe & Steve Oram (who also play the two leads: Tina & Chris), is immediately apparent from the first word spoken. It instantly establishes the utter ordinariness of Tina’s existence as accomplished knitter, daughter & primary carer to her aging & spectacularly demanding mother. Chris’ introduction into this scenario obviously upsets the status quo and deeply unnerves Tina’s mother. When Chris enquires about her love of snow-globes, Tina’s mum merely responds with a forceful “I don’t like you”. The brilliance of the screenplay though is to maintain the juxtaposition between the suffocating mundanity of their caravan holiday in a rainy & grey Britain and the escalating extremes of events unfolding around them. It’s similar to watching an episode of The Royle Family written & directed by Quentin Tarantino as the film is both very very funny and very very violent. This presents the most uncomfortable yet most enjoyable film to the audience as you’ll be pissing yourself laughing at the worst of human behaviour. It’s Schadenfreude to the Nth degree.
Alice & Steve had additional material from co-writer & long time Wheatley collaborator (and Mrs) Amy Jump. The Midas-touching Ms Jump also wrote on the magnificent Kill List and the 17th century mind-fuck that was A Field In England, so her pedigree was never in doubt.
What a combination of talent Lowe/Oram & Jump has given us – they simply MUST get into a room and do more (I’m begging here…)
Performances were towering throughout. As mentioned before, Alice Lowe & Steve Oram take the leads and the majority of the film is a two-hander between them. It’s the dialogue and their delivery that rendered me spellbound. There are innumerable lines I could quote but without the context of whatever atrocity has just been committed, I shan’t bother. It’s their humanity, however twisted, that shines through and regardless of what they’ve done, you care about them. You want their relationship to work & flourish against this backdrop of frustration and bloody murder, preferably away from any people, I grant you. When they’re alone, they become almost one organism. They understand each other’s hopes & fears & desires & rages and support and nurture each other. It’s only when a third party enters that things get all unpleasant and murder-y. Once the third party has been eradicated though, they return to the functioning & loving couple that you oddly find yourself rooting for.
Lowe & Oram are obviously great friends as well as talented actors as their companionship is so comfortable, something that strangers would struggle to convey. It makes the journey we take with them very inclusive, as if we’ve all been mates for years.
Finally I come to the direction: Ben Wheatley has once again twatted it out of the park. As the wise & sagely “TheBlueTook” has already stated, it’s near impossible to pigeon-hole Mr Wheatley and who am I to try? What I will say is that if (implausibly – I’m illustrating a point!) Mike Leigh, Shane Meadows, Pegg/Frost/Wright and Tarantino all had a baby – it would be Ben Wheatley. He’s normally elbow-deep in the writing of his pieces but has trusted Lowe, Oram & Jump enough to relinquish this aspect of control which is the highest compliment he could pay. His direction of the screenplay nears perfection and I would love to spend an hour in his head during the process of his film making, just to see the world as he does. He has such an acute awareness of the surroundings that the landscape almost becomes another character, intrinsically linked to the tone & look of each scene.
Another thing I’ll draw your attention to is his ethereal use of the natural light available to him. It’s almost painfully beautiful and I haven’t seen this since a lot of Terrence Mallick’s exteriors (I’m not comparing SIGHTSEERS but have a look at Badlands and you’ll see what I mean). The pacing of the film never drops for a moment and even the dullest of establishing/expositional scenes are perfectly weighted. He is totally uncompromising with the depiction of the violence, never pulling a directorial punch or sugar-coating a frame. We’ve all seen directors tone down more unsettling scenes to pander to censorship or age-rating boards to broaden their market appeal but I can assure you this isn’t the case here. Wheatley does not want to patronise his audience or protect them from the world’s horrors and it’s this honesty which is the key to this film.
I’ve purposely been very vague in quoting the script or describing any specifics from the film, as I want you to see it with the same wide-eyed wonderment that I had upon first viewing. Sightseers is one of those rare moments that heartens me and sets my spirit soaring.
I’d love to see every horror film approached with such intelligence, integrity & skill and Ben Wheatley & his gang should be cherished and adored at every opportunity.
Well done everyone, well done indeed!
– By Rob