Ben Wheatley’s new film Sightseers is a welcome return to form for him, after the promising but rather disjointed Kill List (2011). Sightseers is that rare bird: a comedy so dark that it teeters on the edge of not being funny at all, and yet somehow manages to come out swinging. It’s funny, it’s wicked and it’s oddly touching. It may be the best comedy so far this year.
Tina and Chris (Alice Lowe and Steve Oram) are a couple of 30-something misfits who have finally found love and decide to escape Tina’s deranged mother, indulging in a uniquely British pastime: a caravanning holiday. Chris is really determined to impress Tina, and sets out to arrange the most impressive itinerary possible: historical ruins, train preservation sites, and even a pencil museum make their way onto the couple’s “must see” list. (They’re all real places, too). Only one thing can keep Tina and Chris from achieving true relational and nationalistic bliss on their adventure — and that’s everyone else on it.
Chris, propelled by a sense of righteous, working-class indignation, has a nasty habit of bumping off anyone who seriously annoys him. Soon snobs and litterbugs are being felled left and right as the couple leaves a Natural Born Killers-style bloodbath in their wake. It’s very graphic and violent, and for some, this drastic shift back and forth between hilarity and horror may simply not gel. For me, however, it was perfect. Eventually things get out of hand when the deadly duo strays from their idealistic killers’ code; jealousy encroaches and Tina and Chris’s relationship doesn’t seem so perfect after all. It’s a testament to the film’s writing (the script is by Lowe and Oram as well as Amy Jump, Wheatley’s frequent collaborator) that the couple’s future together seems much more important than the trail of bodies piling up behind them.
Equal parts biting social satire and absurdist physical comedy, Sightseers brings several of the best traditions of British comedy together into a delicious mix of madcap cynicism. The film’s press notes describe Lowe and Oram having gone on a “dry run” of the holiday depicted in the film, sharing uncomfortably close quarters for a week, in character. It shows as they’re perfectly in step with each other, and their comic timing is faultless. Lowe is particularly engaging as a sad-sack singleton with a shockingly sadistic side; she’s as apt to shed big, girlish tears over a spilled tea as she is over a run-down bicyclist.
Produced by Nira Park and Edgar Wright (of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) among others, Sightseers is amongst the new crop of British comedy; highly aware of social mores and unafraid to go from strange to outlandish to outré within a single scene. Having now proven himself capable in a variety of generic settings, it’ll be interesting to see where Wheatley goes next. If he knows what’s good for him, he’ll bring his entire Sightseers team along.
– By Lita Robinson