With violence, romance, awkwardness and black humour aplenty, Ben Wheatley’s latest film appears almost elegiac in its portrayal of a Britain now overrun with upper-middle class snobbery, desperately depressing heritage locations and wearers of sensible shoes. The movie is essentially a road movie but one which takes an agonising turn for the worse even before our protagonist’s Abbey Oxford caravan has left the driveway.
Chris (Steve Oram) and Tina (Alice Lowe) embark on a holiday, each for their own reasons. Chris, a would-be writer of God-only-knows what kind of literature, sets out to find his inner muse. Knitting-obsessed Alice sets out to escape from the clutches of her mother. Indeed, the two initially appear to come together as a match made in heaven, with Alice acting as Chris’s muse and Chris an escape vessel for Alice as they traverse the idyllic terrain of northern England. Discord soon enters in the form of an indifferent litterbug; we then begin to see the real direction of Wheatley’s film.
A shot of litterbug littering car park; cut to Chris engaging reverse in his car; cut back to litterbug. In an instant that would reassure Sam Peckinpah that his style is still being put to good use, and in slow-motion, Chris’s first victim meets his maker under the wheels of the caravan. Yet one asks why this gormless litterbug even decided to visit Crich’s National Tramway Museum in the first place, for he is certainly no streetcar specialist. He seems rather to represent every-Briton, hatching the bright idea of visiting such a mundane attraction probably because he discovered a half-price coupon for it in The Glossop Chronicle that morning. But that is not the only revelation to spring from the situation; Chris’s subtle satisfaction over the death of the litterbug, who by now is spurting copious amounts of blood from his jugular, is typical of Wheatley’s black comedic style. His emotional response to this scenario is understandable, even if his actual physical response goes several steps too far. However, it is the latter which acts as a leavener in the film, literally giving life to an otherwise lifeless, socio-realistic world which we might all recognise.
Charged with bloodlust, Chris cannot help but eradicate more dire and recognisable specimens, including a National Trust anoraker who Chris bludgeons to death with a tree branch; even an elderly man (probably a member of “Ramblers”) with whom Chris gets drunk, and who although Chris keeps suspiciously quiet about, presumably meets a similar fate. Yet it is fellow-caravaner and established author Ian who becomes the spanner in the works in Chris’s mind. Killing him off atop a picturesque crag from which Ian can only descend, Chris now realises that his murder-spree cannot be justified; Ian is killed not out of anger at class difference or out of simple dislike but because Ian was too similar to him. From hereon in, Chris is unable to discover his creative potential and also unable to escape the reality of contemporary Britain; he hands the reins to Alice who has absolutely no idea what to do and so continues the spree. Chris becomes a defeated-hero within his own repulsive world, unloved now as much as he apparently was at school, and now also painfully aware of his own sensible shoes, his anorak, his knitted cardigan and his beard.
Lamenting a lost past, Sightseers captures the banal reality of twenty-first century heritage Britain, encapsulated by the protagonists’ trip to the Keswick Pencil Museum (which really is home to the world’s largest colouring pencil). Merged with a liberal helping of artful violence, Wheatley has created a film both funny and seriously satirical, pushing the boundaries of “un-budget” British film, as Wheatley himself calls it, and making him one of the country’s most promising contemporary directors.