Sunday, 25 November 2012

Sightseers Review

UK 2012
Director: Ben Wheatley
Certificate 15   88m

Ben Wheatley makes unsettling films. The slick sadism at work in 2011’s Kill List shocked and bewildered audiences when it shed all guises and revealed itself not to be the kitchen-sink gangster flick, but all-out horror, eerily reminiscent of creeping paranoid thrillers like The Wicker Man. In Sightseers, Wheatley tells a story just as sadistic and with just as much suburban paranoia of the country and just as much unflinching violence too, only this time it is very funny.

Tina (Lowe) is a 34 year old who finds Chris (Oram) coming between her and beige homelife with Mom when he proposes to take her caravanning in the West Midlands. It is clear that Tina is not on amicable terms with her mother, and a lot of past guilt (for the death of a beloved pet) is thrust her way as she is swept off her feet by Chris’ not all-that-honourable beardy advances. However, Chris’ rugged worldliness and promises of the Pencil Museum, The Tram Museum and the Yorkshire Downs get the better of Tina and she tears herself away from Mom, grabs her knitting, some pot-pourri and jumps into the car with Chris as they tow his caravan into the wilderness.
Their first day is of course, disastrous. Chris is distracted from enjoying their visit to the vintage tram museum by a littering oaf, and Tina finds herself wrought with guilt when Mom calls from home, feigning distress and illness. All these worries are dwarfed, however, when their caravan runs into, over and some way through an unfortunate, not entirely undeserving, passer-by.
As the couple trek across Yorkshire, more seemingly accidental tragedies occur, as pagan rituals, omens of past wrongdoings, and perpetual boredom play on their minds. Tina's doubts grow and she begins to fear how far she will go to stay with Chris, as his fierce affection for the country is revealed. She is, however, adamant, that their moral slips not ‘ruin the holiday’.

So far, so spoiler-free (I appreciate how awkward the synopsis is there but it’s hard to review this film without giving too much away. There are plenty of surprises too good to spoil here).

The film is both very funny and disquieting. Never does the comedy come for free though; with each fatal blow to their unsuspecting victims, Tina and Chris pay with fissures in their relationship, morality and sanity, and we are made to feel the full force of these consequences.
It does not begin with obvious laughs either, but with a tableau of Tina, modestly dressed in straight unfitting jeans and a plain black sweater reaching out to her mother for understanding, who is in a muted malaise at the prospect of losing her daughter, who she is only too quick to remind, remains her only company. The fact that the comedy has such realistic and honest undertones makes it all the more unsettling and hence curiously British. The home-grown feel stems not just from the imagery of caravan sites and the suffocating overcast weather, but Tina’s attitude that is desperate to make the best out of a terrible situation.

Alice Lowe plays Tina with a knowing yet honest detachment. She emits the sort of na├»ve steadfastness of someone struggling to do the right thing. I’ve long been a fan of Lowe's television appearances since her brilliant performance of Dr Liz Asher in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and am delighted when she pops up on comedy shows such as The Mighty Boosh, Snuff Box and This is Jinsy. With Sightseers she proves not just to have formidable skills as a comic performer but also those of an accomplished dramatic actor. That Tina unsettles, moves us, and get the biggest laughs is remarkable. The film's parched wit keeps it on the outskirts of believability too. The layers of authenticity and melancholy in Tina make the horrific tragedy all the more disquieting and frankly believable.

Steve Oram (who also wrote the screenplay along with Lowe and Amy Jump) plays Chris’s frankness remarkably cautiously. There is something distant not just about Tina's, but our relationship with him too; Oram’s briskness keeps the barrier up. Their relationship is not perfect, and nor are their social or financial circumstances. Chris works as a sort of one-man mob authority on all injustices from class war to naive city-dwellers' preaching of National Trust guidelines, bringing, as he sees it, balance to the universe through perverse but ‘necessary’ methods. The uneasy truth, however, is we begin to justify the ends their victims meet and along with Alice struggle to find a way out.

Through the laughs, violence and crumbling central relationship, the film manages to sustain another unsuspecting character, the countryside. Its eerily beautiful quality is credited in strong part to cinematographer Laurie Rose, who shot Wheatley’s last two features, and in a somewhat suburban allergic reaction, almost causes things go downhill. That their spirits are linked to the surroundings is a curious genre device, one that crosses the comedy into horror, and something that is quintessentially Wheatley. In lesser hands, pillow shots of creeping fog on the Yorkshire downs or hail battering the surrounding scenery would come off as cynical or clunky. However, Wheatley manages to infuse them with meaning to the spirit of the characters with brio. It’s a testament to the producers, who include the formidably successful Nira Park, that such personal touches of Wheatley’s remain.

It is the film’s grounding in reality and the mundane, then, which why it works as well as it does. It knows where to tow the line between tragedy, horror and comedy, fearlessly dancing between without hesitation. When we are not being battered with laughs in grossed-out dismay we are trundling eerily into Chris and Tina’s psyche, and the film becomes something that carries pathos. Don’t be fooled by the colourful poster, this isn’t an easy ride.

Nationwide from November 30th