It's a long time since I've felt a sense of delighted surprise at watching a movie. It's not something that happens that often, but within a few minutes of sitting down to watch Sightseers I had a feeling I was in for a rare treat. Unfortunately, whenever a movie gives such a sense of promise so early on, it's usually coupled with a sense of foreboding that you might have gotten it wrong, you might be allowing your expectations to spiral too high. Not so. Sightseers is the most original and happily surprising British movie I've seen in years.
If you've ever wondered whether or not you knew exactly what a Black Comedy was, sightseers will remove all doubt. Simply put, don't expect a laugh a minute, but with an adaptable and open sense of humour there's plenty on show here to un-knit your furrowed brow and paint a cheeky smirk across your face.
Tina is Thirty Four years old, and she's finally found a man who likes her, and she's absolutely determined to go on holiday with him. Chris is a relatively happy-go-lucky type who, though instantly likeable, holds all the warning signs of someone who could potentially bore you to death with an unabridged history of the Tram. Chris's enthusiasm to show Tina the time of her life by taking her away on a caravan holiday to the countryside is palpable, and Tina can barely contain her excitement. Tina's mother is less than thrilled by the prospect, and sees the whole thing as a rouse by Chris to steal her daughter from her. Tina is very attached to her domineering mother, being her only friend since their dog was killed in a horrific knitting needle accident, but nevertheless she is determined to let her boyfriend Chris sweep her off her feet in his Abbey Cachet Caravan.
As they tour the countryside stopping at various campsites to marvel at such wonders as The National Tramway Museum, or the Pencil Museum, their story begins to take a turn for the peculiar. We soon discover that Chris's affable midlands accent and cuddly ginger-bearded exterior masks a much darker and more sinister side. As the wholly deplorable British public carelessly litter the beautiful countryside, Chris becomes increasingly enraged until he can contain the beast within no longer. Turns out he's actually a bit of a dab hand at cold-blooded murder, taking to it with a gleeful willingness that raises suspicions it may not be his first time committing gruesome murder.
Upon learning that her new boyfriend is a serial killer, Tina reacts by attempting to win her boyfriends approval by joining in. Galvanised by the new-found hobby the two lovebirds have discover they share, the pair's driving force are the deplorable British public, whose bloody-minded rudeness is the catalyst for their mutual disdain. Their caravan of horrors trip of a lifetime moves at a quickening and unsustainable pace towards what we can only assume will be a romantic bloody valentine of despair.
Sightseers is not a new movie. In fact, it began life almost a decade ago when TV comedy actors Alice Lowe and Steve Oram began exchanging ideas for a caravan holiday movie influenced by their own childhood holiday experiences. Alas, rejected time and time again for being “too dark” or failing to hit the mainstream mark, things didn't look promising for their quirky and darkly amusing screenplay, but the comedy duo's determination is to be applauded. Perseverance and bloody-mindedness would rule the day eventually. It wasn't until the pair put their pitch online and sent the link to the arguably legendary urban comedy stalwart, Edgar Wright, who Lowe had worked with on Hot Fuzz, that the movie was given the green light.
Interestingly, despite Edgar Wright's role as executive producer on the movie, it would seem that his part is fairly silent. It bears practically no hallmarks of his fast paced editing style and cheeky references to pop culture, rather, it manages to find its own feet and stand apart from the more sub-culture comedy we might expect from his well established body of work. Serious kudos must go to all three of them for not diluting the idea beyond all recognition. It seems Wright modestly remained “The Money” for the film, it seems.
I'll struggle not to draw comparisons with other great British movies, particularly because the art of the Black Comedy is something that the Brits tend to have a natural skill for. The likes of In Bruges (Martin MacDonagh) comes to mind, A room for Romeo Brass (Shane Meadows), and going further back there's Gregory's Girl (Bill Forsyth) , and of course the cult-classic Withnail and I (Bruce Robinson). All of them loaded with a sense of tragedy, but with a healthy peppering of sharp, off the wall humour. It would also be impossible not to mention Mike Leigh's Nuts in May, in which Alison Steadman plays the wonderfully innocent Candice – a performance that resonates strongly with Lowes portrayal of Midlands seamstress, Tina in Sightseers.
To hang Sightseers with such a laudable list of great movies is utterly justifiable. It absolutely holds it's own among those greats, yet it stands firmly on it's own two feet as well. It's original enough for me to confidently state that I've never seen a movie quite like it. Making you laugh seems effortless, like it's not even trying, something that the improvisational nature of the way the movie is shot can take credit for. At one point, so unexpected was the guffaw that escaped me, that I had no time to move the mug of tea from which I was drinking away from my face. It's a long time since a movie has made me laugh enough to make tea come out my nose.
Sightseers secret lies within it's characters. They are so well written that it's almost unfair on every other film ever made. The fact that co-writers Alice Lowe and Steve Oram also play the two lead roles in the movie seems to afford them the opportunity to dispense with any formal character introduction, relying on their natural comedic chemistry which absolutely sizzles right from the outset. What's also interesting here is that the man at the helm is Ben Wheatley, who comes to Sightseers off the back of the breathtakingly gritty and scintillating brilliant Kill List. I've heard numerous critics slating Wheatley for not putting his authoritative directorial stamp on Sightseers, but I disagree. I think that coming off something like Kill List, a movie that was clearly draining and terribly dark to shoot, that Wheatley perhaps wanted to step into something he could maybe take slightly more of a back seat in. Sightseers would be the perfect vehicle for him to ride the wave of cutting edge improvisational black comedy that Oram and Lowe exude, whilst still managing to be ever so slightly creepy and sinister. I, for one, think that a more heavy-handed approach from a director on this project would likely have diluted the comedy aspects of the movie, and to it's detriment. So I raise a glass to Ben Wheatley and his ability to let a good thing just happen.
Sightseers is a brilliant bombshell of the anti-hero movie. It's delivered with class and sophistication, and though not tripping over itself to draw laughs from you, manages to amuse by being both too real and too unreal at the same time. It's not an easy gap to bridge, but with the naturalistic style of acting, and the reserved subtlety demonstrated by the director, it's a success in every way. It's no Hollywood Blockbuster, but with summer fast approaching, this comes as a breath of fresh air that's more than welcomed ahead of the flurry of stifling and suffocating big-budget summer smash movies on the horizon.
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