Wednesday, September 5, 2012

'Sightseers' (2012) directed by Ben Wheatley, 4th September 2012

'Sightseers' is strange, beautiful and bizarrely charming.  I saw it as part of the trade and press screenings held by 'Launching Films', who are showing a number of new British films to be released later this year.  I went into 'Sightseers' completely blind, knowing nothing about it other than that it was a comedy.  British film comedy is a bit of a mixed bag; on one hand you've got brilliance like 'Shaun of the Dead' (2004), and on the other you have bilge like 'Sex Lives of the Potato Men' (2004), so you never quite know what you're going to get.  

Reassuringly this film comes with a good pedigree.  The film, produced by Edgar Wright, is director Ben Wheatley's follow-up to the well received 'Kill List' (2011). The writers/leads are comedians Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, playing characters they've developed in a stand-up act.  The film follows the two around rural England on a caravan holiday. They spend their time visiting small and very British attractions like the Cumberland Pencil Museum and Crich Tramway Village.  Along the way various events happen that complicate this pleasant and relaxing time.

Tina (Alice Lowe)
Ten minutes into the film I was amused.  Twenty minutes in I was involved.  Half an hour this film was gripping me by the throat and not letting me go.  You can't really review this film without giving the central premise away, but the slow reveal of what the premise is was something I very much enjoyed.  The trailer gives the game away completely, so while I'd recommend going in knowing as little about it as possible I think it'll be pretty hard in the run up to the release.  Having said that, I'm going to extensively talk about what the film is about in this review, but I won't spoil any major plot points.  It's a brilliant film. If you want to go in blind, stop reading here.

Chris (Steve Oram)
'Sightseers' is about Chris (Steve Oram) and Tina's (Alice Lowe) caravan holiday.  They're a sweetly geeky, slightly awkward pair.  Although both are in their mid-thirties they don't seem to have been in a proper relationship before meeting each other, and the film begins with them excitedly preparing for their first holiday together.  As they travel around the country they come across various annoying characters who get on the wrong side of our leads.  Litterers, rude people, busybodies and so on.  The typically English thing to do when confronted by someone who's offended you is to seethe quietly in the corner.  Chris and Tina do a bit of seething, but this soon, unexpectedly boils over into outright murder.  As the film progresses they wreak a trail of havoc across the scenic in a kind of middle-class, British version of 'Natural Born Killers' (1994).

The happy couple.
'Sightseers' does is compulsively picks at a scab on British society.  It takes a modern, sensible and outwardly normal English couple, then peels away the thin layer of civilisation.  The two begin then subtly begin to embody the violent, shitty, bloody history of Britain.  Throughout the film we begin to see the mask of modern society fall away, revealing the bloodthirsty barbaric warrior under the harmless tram enthusiast, or the wildly jealous, overtly sexual witch-bitch under the repressed, knitting mummy's girl.

The film takes its time to get to the killings, and you get to know the characters very well in this time.  Even though they're murderers, Chris and Tina are both very easy to like, mainly because they seem to be genuinely happy to have each found someone to love.  It's a sweet and realistic relationship, the two bicker occasionally, have little meaningless in-jokes ("Mint me!") and generally act incredibly sweetly.  When they're left to their own devices they seem like any other happy couple at the start of a relationship enjoying discovering new things about each other.  It's only when the rest of the world begins to intrude they they descend into murderous fury.

It also looks amazing.
Ben Wheatley, Steve Oram and Alice Lowe have taken a snapshot of a certain type of England you don't really see on the big screen; duffel-coated enthusiasts happily meandering through the countryside with a thermos of tea and a pair of binoculars before retreating to their caravan for more tea and some reading.  There's no glamour, but these are recognisable people to pretty much everyone in England and their stories are as worth telling as well-off, romantically confused booksellers in trendy parts of London.  It's important that the film never looks down upon our leads and the people they encounter.  Violent though the film is, it's never cruel; it'd be easy to show these people as small minded Alan Partridge types for cheap laughs, but doing this would eliminate the emotional attachment that transforms the narrative from exploitation-horror into something  more heartfelt and universal.

In addition to showing a type of English person that doesn't generally star in films, we also get to see a rarely seen side of England.  The small, eccentric museums and attractions like Blue John's Cavern, ruined abbeys and the aforementioned pencil museums and tram villages.  Places like this are etched indelibly into the English subconscious, and seeing small tea rooms packed with (and staffed by) nattering old ladies and gift shops full of useless tat brings back memories of school trips and half-term holidays.  Although the events of the film  seem to take place under a perpetual overcast grey sky the countryside still manages to look both beautiful and forbidding.  The wild woods, windblasted mountains and craggy, jagged rocks hearken back to an uncivilised, prehistoric Britain. 

A sacrifice at a stone circle?
Throughout the film there is a constant sense of history bubbling up from beneath the ground.  The characters visit ruined abbeys and ancient stone circles; they're treading in the steps of their ancestors.  It's this envelopment by the past which seems to inform their murders, seem more and more to echo pre-Christian druidic sacrifices.  We see people getting their heads dashed against the megaliths of stone circles as John Hurt reads 'Jerusalem', bodies with smashed skulls being hurled from cliffs (heads smashed by a rock with an ancient trilobite fossil embedded in it no less) and later a kind of symbolic virgin sacrifice.  The rampage of murder only seems to begin in earnest when a sacrifice has been offered to some kind of 'God of Caravanning'; blood stains the wheels and side of their caravan.

In dialogue the characters at one point ponder what their lives would have been like in the past, imagining themselves as peasants under the yoke of a wealthy noble.  In a dream sequence Chris imagines himself dressed in medieval garb, stumbling through a wood after a ghostly bride.  Alice is directly referred to as a 'witch', and the character notably acquires a 'familiar' early on in the film.  Even the title of the film can be interpreted in two ways, the two are sightseers in that they are tourists visiting attractions and also sight 'seers' in the ancient pagan tradition of communing with supernatural forces.  

D'awwww.  They're sweet when they're not bashing people's brains out.
While modern Britain may be fairly clean and antiseptic, our past is steeped in mountains and rivers of mud, blood and shit.  These three emblems of ancient life crop up repeatedly in the film, the mud in the damp and drizzly countryside they navigate, the blood flowing violently and graphically in the murder scenes and excrement being repeatedly and compulsively discussed.  Alice is constantly talking about shit.  At various points in the film she tries to talk dirty, and maybe takes it overly literally, talking about picking up dogshit with her hands, or being humiliated by using her turds as lipstick.  It's notable that when she calls her mother at a low moment for advice, the first thing her mother asks her "You didn't let him see you do number twos did you Tina?".  This preoccupation with coprophilia is pretty weird stuff, but seems to signal a desire to revert to a wild, instinctual animal state.  It's a rejection of civilisation, of modern society and its rules - which, on some level matches up with the idea of their caravan holiday.

What 'Sightseers' seems to trying to show us is that despite their violent, impulsive killing spree, Chris and Tina are very much like you or I.  Sometimes the United Kingdom can seem like a very angry, frustrated little country.  The classic English notion of the 'stiff upper lip' encourages us to stoically bear any annoyances, bottling up anger deep inside us.  But one glance at the history of this windy, rainy island reveals us to be a people steeped in blood and war.  Whether the land is being conquered or we're conquering others there is some aspect of the British character that tends towards conflict and violence.  'Sightseers' is a film about what happens when the two collide, when manners and politeness crash head on into the history of the British Isles.

It's bloody brilliant.

Sightseers is on general release from November 30th.

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