A quickie review for now, which is not to dismiss Sightseers in any way. This is the sort of inky black comedy that strikes a home run by virtue of making a good proportion of its audience feel very uncomfortable. The secret is too close to home, let alone a home run.
The characters are an everyman stereotypical Brit and his girl out on a caravanning holiday in the Peak District. Nothing odd about that, you might think, except Chris (Steve Oram) and Tina (Alice Lowe) contrive to be both intensely ordinary while bumping off those who get in their way or inspire in their hearts jealousy and hatred – all within the context of the beautiful but strangely oppressive landscape.
They also steal a dog who happens to look very like Tina’s mum’s dog, killed accidentally with knitting needles, but for which Tina has been blamed.
In the course of their adventures, Chris and Tina succeed in being utterly mundane by doing the things we all do, talking the things we all talk about, sharing our concerns and anxieties, but the taking the final step, the one where all but a tiny minority draw the line.
That’s the margin we would often secretly love to cross but somehow rarely if ever do, which makes it rich pickings for a dark comedy. And make no mistake, this is a genuinely funny movie, even if some will not see the funny side. The ending in particular takes the movie to deep territory. Admittedly some great lines in a perky script do help: “That’s not my vagina!” says Tina looking at naughty pictures kept by Chris, for example!
So how did they prepare for this movie?
The characters came together seven years before the film came out as Lowe and Oram swapped stories based on their common background and childhood holiday experiences. However, the pitch kept getting turned down for being too dark, so they put it online and Lowe sent the link to Edgar Wright, with whom she had worked on Hot Fuzz. Wright greenlit the project, so Lowe and Oram did more research and took a caravanning holiday to the locations that would go on to be featured in the film. Ben Wheatley has said that all the locations were very helpful, even after they explained the nature of the film, because they “tried to make sure that it was open and fair to places, and that they weren’t the butt of jokes. The two were also inspired by Withnail and I.
The influences are pretty clear. But how did the public react?
Peter Bradshaw reviewed the film twice for The Guardian, first after its preview at Cannes, when he suggested “Wheatley could be suffering from difficult third album syndrome: this is not as mysterious and interesting as Kill List; its effects are more obvious and the encounters between the naturalistically conceived antiheroes and the incidental, sketch-comedy posh characters is a little uneasy. By the end, I got the sense that in terms of character and narrative the film was running out of ideas – just a bit.”
However, he looked at it again on its theatrical release and admitted that “when I first saw it, I think I might have got out of bed the right side” going on to say “a second viewing has further revealed just how superb are the effortless performances of Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, who are the movie’s writers (working with Wheatley’s longtime co-writer Amy Jump), and whose creative ownership makes a purely auteurist comparison with Kill List slightly less relevant.”
He suggests a number of parallels: “an obvious comparison with Mike Leigh‘s Nuts in May, and there are even traces of Victoria Wood and Alan Bennett, whose gentler, observational comedy is turned into something nightmarish, bringing in an exquisitely horrible Readers’ Wives aesthetic”, concluding that “[t]he chilling and transgressive flourishes are carried off with deadpan confidence; it’s a distinctive and brutally unsettling piece of work.”
Kim Newman wrote in Empire magazine that Sightseers is a “uniquely British blend of excruciating comedy of embarrassment and outright grue, not quite as disorientating in its mood shifts as Kill List but just as impressive a film.”The Guardian asked an editor of Caravan Magazine for his opinion and he thought the film, which he described as “absolutely brilliant”, accurately captured the details of caravanning holidays.
However, the praise wasn’t unanimous. The Financial Times‘ Nigel Andrews conclusion was “There are a few laughs; a few wise nods. But before the end fatigue arrives and doesn’t go away.”
I’d say give it a go – worth it!