A Romantic Getaway, With Murder
If an Englishman’s home is his castle, then it follows that the English countryside is his kingdom. His enjoyment of the countryside is his democratic right, but this is made much, much more difficult when other Englishmen get in the way. “Sightseers” explores one way of solving this problem in the least pleasant possible way.
Chris (Steve Oram) and Tina (Alice Lowe) embark on a week’s caravanning holiday in the north of England over the strenuous objections of Tina’s mother Carol (Eileen Davies). Tina and Chris met in a capoeira class three months ago, and the trip is their first big step as a couple. Even though they’re both pushing 40, this seems to be the first serious relationship for both. Chris has taken an employment sabbatical and is working on a book, while Tina has been trapped under her mother’s thumb for her whole life. This miserable little trip is their big chance to get away.
But things collapse almost immediately after Chris gets into an unpleasant altercation over a dropped Popsicle wrapper. After that, when Carol has Tina paged over the Tannoy for a trumped-up crisis, they decide to call the holiday off. But as Chris reverses out of the parking lot, something very bad happens.
Now, the British police have a notoriously relaxed attitude toward that particular bad thing. But everything that follows in “Sightseers” depends on Chris and Tina being allowed to continue on their way.
If you can overlook that gaping plot hole, the rest of the movie becomes an ever creepier examination of class war, manners (and/or lack of), menace, and the wild beauty of rural England. The movie was filmed on genuine tourist locations, such as Crich Tramway Village and the Cumberland Pencil Museum, which show an astonishing public relations nerve. Director Ben Wheatley has a gift for creating menace out of perfectly ordinary things. It’s clear he is interested in exploring our attitudes toward violence, and what excuses people use to justify it.
But Mr. Wheatley doesn't trust his viewers to get the point and spends most of the movie picking the same scab. This overkill is best demonstrated in the scene where sound director Martin Pavey overscores some violence not merely with the sound of ax chopping wood, but also with someone reciting the famous English poem about “dark satanic mills.” Separately either one of those aural choices would have been devastating. Together, they create and then mock the audience’s sense of righteousness and superiority.
Edgar Wright, who directed the similarly themed “Hot Fuzz,” is one of this film’s producers; Nira Park produced both movies, which also share a visual sensibility and approach to gore. “Hot Fuzz” is by far the better film, because there were characters in it the audience liked and could relate to. “Sightseers” gives us a sanctimonious bully who likes making self-pitying speeches about his grievances, and a mouseburger who finds other people’s fear turns her on. They enjoy embarrassing, caravan-rocking sex with Tina face down in a bowl of potpourri while Chris takes photographs. They argue about getting lost and shop for hiking boots.
Mr. Oram and Ms. Lowe developed the characters while working as supporting players for Steve Coogan’s recent live-comedy shows, and wrote the script with Amy Jump, Mr. Wheatley’s wife. It’s been pitched as a very black comedy, and admittedly has some excellent zingers such as “That tree won’t involve itself in low-level bullying” or “He’s not a person, he’s a Daily Mail reader,” but the major surprise is the contempt which poisons the entire film.
There is not one moment where Tina and Chris are set up as anything other than awful. Instead of rooting for them or even relating to them, we are expected to sneer. This is a movie with nothing but disgust for everything it portrays. It sneers at the holiday ambitions of the caravanners, whether they have a cramped older model or a gleaming new one. The day-trip tourist locations, the campgrounds and the other campers are all pathetic. It sneers at the officious posh men who complain about dog filth and at the outdoorsman who cries over his dead chickens.
By only populating “Sightseers” with embarrassing grotesques, then any chance of involving the audience is lost. Even Mike Leigh, who is famous for his mocking of working-class pretentions, doesn't go this far. If Carol was kind instead of monstrous, Tina's need to escape from her stifling home would have had pathos. If we'd had to watch Chris talk his way out of that first parking lot, we could have recognized his smothered intelligence. We, the audience, could have gone on this journey willingly. But Mr. Oram, Ms. Lowe and Mr. Wheatley preferred to take us hostage.
A lot of the publicity for “Sightseers” talks it up as an English road movie, with comparisons to many American films that cannot be named without spoilers. The key difference is that the American movies took the trouble to find the humanity in their stories, even if it was only a small spark. “Hot Fuzz” did that too, with a dark and funny movie that celebrated both Britishness- and Hollywood-style cinema. “Sightseers” has nothing but contempt for both.
Opens on Nov. 30 in Britain and on May 10, 2013 in New York and Los Angeles.
Directed by Ben Wheatley; written by Alice Lowe and Steve Oram; director of photography, Laurie Rose; edited by Amy Jump, Mr. Wheatley and Robin Hill; music by Jim Williams; production design by Jane Levick; costumes by Rosa Dias; produced by Nira Park, Claire Jones and Andy Starke; released by Studiocanal (Britain) and IFC Films (United States). Running time: 1 hour 29 minutes. This film is rated 15 by B.B.F.C. and not rated by M.P.A.A.
WITH: Alice Lowe (Tina), Eileen Davies (Carol), Steve Oram (Chris), Roger Michael (Tram Conductor), Tony Way (Crich Tourist) and Seamus O’Neill (Mr. Grant).