Friday, December 27, 2013


Making it a hat trick for Ben Wheatley on this year’s Winter of Discontent, let's clear out any remaining traces of goodwill to our fellow men and join Chris (Steve Oram) and Tina (Alice Lowe) - the stars also wrote the film - for a caravanning holiday around Yorkshire and the Midlands.

There's a nice corollary to ‘Quadrophenia’ being the previous review here on Agitation. If Franc Roddam’s take on the classic Who album is a shiv-packing tale of rival gangs and the disappointments of alienated youth, ‘Sightseers’ provides a no less violent account of atrophied middle age and small lives marked only by frustration.

Tina’s 34 and still lives with her passive-aggressive mother. The accidental death of their Scottie dog and Tina’s (albeit unintended) complicity hangs over them, a constant exacerbation to a lifetime’s worth of resentment. “It was an accident,” Tina pleads early in the film; “So were you,” her mother shoots back.

Chris is sailing close to his forties and has taken a sabbatical in order to find his voice as a writer. The fact that he has yet to put a single word on paper doesn't seem to bother him unduly ... until, that is, he meets an actual writer with three published books to his name and suddenly the beardy, knitted-jumper wearing facade of Chris’s liberal, middle-class everyman persona crumble to expose the vicious, spiteful, emotionally crippled man-child beneath.

But let’s get back to the caravan trip. Chris and Tina seem to be getting on well and Tina agrees, over her mother’s petulant protests, to a week’s holiday with Chris. A sort of get-to-know-each-other-better thing. Chris has got it all planned out: a whistlestop tour of English heritage: the Crich Tramway Museum, the Blue John Cavern in Derbyshire, the Pencil Museum at Keswick and the Ribblehead viaduct. These are all actual places. Yes, England has a fucking pencil museum. Land of hope and motherfucking HB. Quite how Wheatley and co. got permission to film in them and what the staff and administrators made of the film on its release I would dearly love to know.

As the trip progress, Tina does indeed get to know Chris better. She discovers that he’s wound tighter than a watch spring that cross-bred with a torque wrench. A man who drops litter at Crich inspires him to an apoplectic rage; a man with a better caravan and better prospects earns his wrath; a man who challenges Tina over her dog fouling on National Trust land gets brutally dealt with. Chris’s rationale in this latter incident – “He’s not a person, he’s a Daily Mail reader” – is both hilarious and disturbingly justified.

And Chris gets to know Tina better. He discovers that she’s possessive, capricious and ready to get into a knock-down-drag-out argument at the drop of a hat. Tina screaming “That’s not my vagina!!!” when she finds some kinky photographs on a stolen camera that Chris has passed off as his own is one of the film’s more memorable moments. And this is a film stuffed with memorable moments. Oh, and Tina commits dog-napping.

So, yeah: Chris and Tina. Bonne and Clyde in crap sweaters, with a caravan instead of a Ford730 Sedan. Thelma and Louise with a viaduct instead of the Grand Canyon (and with a nastily cynical visual punchline instead of the held heads of friendship). Two complete nutjobs hardwired into themselves and divorced from any semblance of normal social behaviour. Two uniquely British psychopaths, part sitcom stereotypes, part that couple next door who read The Guardian and conscientiously recycle and whose foul-mouthed arguments end with thrown crockery at 3am. Those people.

‘Sightseers’ isn’t the most disturbing or surreal film Wheatley has made – ‘Kill List’ and ‘A Field in England’ deserve those respective accolades – but it’s his most painfully honest.


Elwood Jones said...

It's such a hard film to sell, especially when the black humour throughout is so decidely British in that like so much of the film it frequently verges on depressing. This of course only makes it harder to pitch to the perspective viewer and even more so when the spoiler heavy trailer gives away most of the best jokes.

I know after watching it I was curious to know how it would play outside of the UK and as such sent it off to various American critics, especially with the idea of the caravan holiday being so decidedly British.

I can say it won me over any more to Wheatly's work, which still fills me with an overall feeling of Meh, but it is one of his better ones, even though your only likely to watch it the once.

Neil Fulwood said...

Strangely enough, it was a couple of American friends who suggested 'Sightseers' for inclusion in the Winter of Discontent. I've only just tuned into Wheatley's work and while I appreciated 'Kill List' and 'A Field in England' on a technical level rather than actually liking either of them, 'Sightseers' hit the spot for me. It's the only Wheatley film that plays out unambiguously as a comedy. 'Kill List' has a couple of almost comedic moments, and 'A Field...' deals in absurdism, but for me 'Sightseers' absolutely got the right tone.

But, yeah, I can imagine it was a hard sell outside the UK. And I can imagine that non-British audiences now have a very dim view of my fellow countrymen.

I would like to state, for the record, that wild horses couldn't drag me to a fucking pencil museum.

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