Sightseers, according to director Ben Wheatley, has “everything you could want in a film – sex, violence, small dogs, caravans, small museums and cagoules.” And he might just be right. Wheatley, known for last year’s brilliant and brutally subversive Kill List, returns this year with an equally as dark, but far more hilarious take on what can best be described as Badlands set in the glorious hills and valleys of Yorkshire.
Chris and Tina (stars and co-writers Steve Oram and Alice Lowe) are a young couple three months into a relationship post-“hooking up at capoeira”. Chris is a self-righteous, environmentally conscious ‘do-gooder’ taking a sabbatical from his job in plastics to work on his novel; Tina is a somewhat repressed dog psychologist still living with her reclusive, attention-seeking mother. Together, they set off on a week-long caravanning trip through Yorkshire, stopping at a few key tourist attractions along the way only to get caught up in a killing spree.
The relationship between these two leads forms the basis of the entire film and is undoubtedly its highlight. Oram and Lowe both have backgrounds in comedy and had been performing these characters on stage for almost a decade prior to translating them onto the big screen. They embody their characters perfectly, with each line of improvised dialogue delivered as seamlessly as the scripted moments. Their jokes come thick and fast – I would wager in years to come, lines like “He’s not a person, Tina. He’s a Daily Mail reader” will be rightly immortalised. Eventually it becomes difficult not to sympathise with them in spite of the tenuous justifications for each grisly murder.
The greatest credit though must go to Wheatley, whose touch is nothing short of inspired. With an abundance of dream sequences and ornithological references, he brings his distinctly eerie style and flair for capturing deeds most foul (fowl?) – that which made Kill List so fantastic – and transposes it effortlessly into the blackest of comedies. The moments that clearly would have been missing from a stage production (i.e. elaborate murder set pieces) are fleshed out with tasteful slo-mo and some excellent prosthetic work. The use of Donovan‘s psychedelic rocker ‘Season of the Witch’ and both versions of pop classic ‘Tainted Love’ only serve to keep Sightseers‘ tongue firmly in cheek. Although, said cheek has probably been left lying beneath a rock somewhere near the Keswick Pencil Museum.
Speaking as a Yorkshireman, it’s refreshing to see my fair county being captured on screen in such an honest, un-romanticised manner (and it’s through this that it becomes romanticised). It rains, it hails, and sometimes the Sun even shines – but it’s always cold and windy Yorkshire. Cinematographer Laurie Rose deliberately uses the elements to his advantage when framing each shot instead of trying to battle them, making Sightseers as much a visual delight as it is a comedic one.
I can only hope that Sightseers gets the following it deserves upon its wide release. Wheatley is an enormous up-and-coming talent and Sightseers should cement his reputation as one of the UK’s finest and most interesting young filmmakers, and this is only his third feature-length film. It’s a devilishly funny and violent affair brimming with charm and intelligence set against the serenely grey backdrop of one of England’s lesser explored regions – at least on the big screen. Sure, it’s grim up north, but there’s nothing like a little murder to liven things up.