Alice Lowe and Steve Oram take the lead in Sightseers: and we’ve been taking a look back at one of Ben Wheatley’s best films.
The tendrils of black comedy are visible in Ben Wheatley’s first two films but with Sightseers, he heads full bore into a twisted, often hilarious world of psychotic fantasists.
Down Terrace had more than its fair share of bleak chuckles even within a stark, documentarian crime narrative, thanks to the interactions of characters and presence of talented comic actors such as Tony Way (who reappears for a brief, deadly cameo here). Kill List plays it much straighter but even there, the interplay between Michael Smiley and Neil Maskell generates lines and moments of even darker comedy. The seeds of Wheatley’s interest in finding hilarity in crime, murder and death are sown ready for Sightseers.
Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, as both co-writers and stars, help bring out what is to date Wheatley’s funniest film, perhaps his one and only true comedy. Their script was based on a stage production and short film that both had mounted exploring history-loving road-tripper Chris (Oram) and cosseted adult living at home Tina (Lowe) and their offbeat love story, but it was consistently rejected as a bigger project for the inherent darkness within.
Lowe had worked with Edgar Wright on his 2007 black comedy action picture Hot Fuzz and through his backing, she and Oram managed to get a cinematic version mounted with Wheatley, first and foremost a fan of locations he can build a concept around, jumping aboard as director – for the first time not making a screenplay he developed.
We wanted to take the stereotype of British tourism, which has this extremely polite veneer, and do something that confounded that. But we didn’t want to make a light, Carry On-style murder comedy – we wanted it to have some psychological veracity, and to challenge people. We knew the characters had to have realistic psychologies for you to be willing to go with them on their journey. The whole movie is essentially about two damaged people coming together, triggering something in one another and becoming more than the sum of their parts.
Sightseers in truth is as much, if not more so, Oram and Lowe’s baby as it is Wheatley’s. He is a hired gun, to an extent, for the first time in his career, coming into Sightseers due to his desire to make something more comedic and freewheeling than the dark, mythological viciousness of Kill List. Yet there is no doubt the film retains the stamp he has begun developing; deluded male protagonists flanked by strong minded, frustrated women; a violent brutality lurking underneath the veneer of civilisation; and especially the ‘mystic Albion’ factor, how Sightseers exists in a Britain that contains pathological murderers such as Chris and Tina.
It is, nonetheless, pathology that develops. Tina begins accused of murder by her own mother Carol (Eileen Davies, who is brilliant with very little), a bitter and controlling middle-aged woman who is calculated in her attempt to keep Tina at home, even while portraying her as a killer following the accidental death of her dog, Poppy, a year earlier. Tina begins nonetheless with the capacity for homicide – one wonders if she wouldn’t have ended up stabbing her mother with one of those knitting needles one day as she spiralled further into spinsterhood (indeed perhaps at the end of this film, she goes and does that anyway).
Tina becomes an agent of chaos, thriving over the disorder that callous murder brings, even playing psychological games with Chris at points, such as how she uses the genuinely nice rambler they encounter, Martin. “He said I was a dirty, slutty bitch. And he wanted to f*ck me. And he said he wanted to sh*t in my mouth and in my underwear. And he said he wanted… he wanted to sh*t in my hand and make me use it as a brown lipstick.”
Profane language but extremely funny in the context of the scene as Tina works to make Chris jealous. She gets off on tearing the world upside down (at one point quite literally). Take the scene where when Chris asks her to pull over, she does so by charging through a roadside runner, killing him brutally. Chris might have no empathy but he struggles with the chaos of that death. It runs contrary to his idea of order in the world, which he employs in committing murder. For him, in his mind, he’s a social vigilante, a psychotic Victor Meldrew punishing thoughtless people for littering or suggesting he should pick up dog muck on a National Trust walk.
There is wonderful psychology underpinning many of Sightseers characters. Chris, a fairly ordinary, ginger man, comments that he was “invisible” at school, and this likely contributed to his sense of righteous grievance. He was almost certainly bullied. He in some sense remains that child, with a self-inflated God complex and anxiety that he’ll be forgotten unless he makes a mark. Chris and Tina act like sexually charged teenagers, indeed they might well be the first person each other has slept with on a regular basis, hence their childish excitement for ‘escaping’ the mundane Midlands lives they inhabit, especially for Tina.
Personally, I find Carol fascinating. Aspects of her I can see in my own mother, if I’m being entirely honest. Chris tries to ingratiate himself as he prepares to take her daughter away from her, complimenting her on artwork she creates, but he still gets a cold “I don’t like you” in response. Carol never wants anyone to see her own self-expression, locking it away in her “private sanctum”. She tells Tina that “mystery is a woman’s sanctum”, as part of that same psychology. Carol is familiar to me as an archetype and very smartly represents the dour, depressing middle-England that Sightseers lampoons, without quite falling into the ‘stupid Brummie’ cliche that, as someone born and raised in Birmingham, has always been a frustrating trope.
Lowe suggests their regional origins are crucial to the characters:
The fact that they’re regional was very important – there’s no way they could be from London. We’re both from the Midlands ourselves, and the characters evolved from us talking about our families, and holidays we used to go on. There’s a scene in the film where Chris says he wanted to be invisible, and growing up in the Midlands you come to realise that it doesn’t have a strong identity. You can’t even take part in the north/south argument.
What Sightseers does is place people like Chris and Tina in a situation where their extremes are visible, as Romeo & Juliet-style they become ever warped by their own sexual desire and companionship while travelling historical sites of interest. When they encounter the middle class couple Ian (Jonathan Aris) and Janice (Monica Dolan), you really see how strange they are. Those two are fairly brittle but they are normal, in relation to their social status. Neil is the successful author that Chris wants to be, self-aggrandises himself as, and his murder of the man no doubt factors into jealousy of the talent Chris will never have. Similarly, Tina takes their Poppy-like dog Banjo and later repeats Janice’s description of Neil to someone in relation to Chris. She tries to become that couple.
Wheatley’s embrace of this mordant material feels very in step for the breakdown of social contracts he explores in Down Terrace and Kill List. Chris and Tina entirely detach from the traditional world around them, escape into their fantasy, killing without consequence, all the while Tina begins to baulk at Chris’ sense of intended order and control, including over her. What he wants is a subservient woman to bow down to his impressiveness, not a partner. Tina realises this at the hilarious but twisted climax, in the final shot. Oram claims they were inspired by very prosaic looking serial killers such as Fred West, and you can see such fingerprints.
Wheatley discusses the darkness of what these inspirations bring:
The more gruesome elements were important for me, on a vaguely moral level. It’s dangerous to go Wile E. Coyote on people and bash them about, and then not show what happens to them – it ends up like The A-Team. You want audiences to understand the consequences of these characters’ actions, which are funny but also abhorrent. As a viewer you should be going from laughter to feeling guilty and back to laughter again.
Where Wheatley’s hand comes in, outside of the visceral expression of violence and death that his camera doesn’t shy away from, is the confluence of such social detachment and amorality with a sense of national history and identity. Chris excitedly takes Tina to railway museums and pastoral old stones, becoming angry at double standards or people he believes take the natural world for granted. He sees the whole trip they take as an escape from a world he feels has wronged him. “This is exactly how I imagined it. No one sticking their nose in. No one penetrating the mind.
Take the noble English oak, Old Knobbley. That won’t stab you in the back or belittle your five year plan. That tree won’t… steal things that belong to you and put them in another place just to piss you off. That tree won’t involve itself in low-level bullying that means you have to leave work.”
Chris therefore fits within the lexicon of Wheatley’s troubled, detached, male figures grappling with their place in the world, attempting to buffer up their masculinity in light of systems seeking to bring them down. Whether it’s Karl in Down Terrace or Jay in Kill List, these are men with a sense of entitlement, driven to violent acts. The difference with Sightseers is the bleak comedy that Wheatley draws out of the script and places on screen with more of a freewheeling sense of chaotic abandon.
Although it doesn’t precisely line up with Wheatley’s subsequent pictures in terms of tone or indeed style, Sightseers remains among my favourites of his work. It is perverse yet tender, violent yet comical, sinister yet loving. It brews all of those elements into a defiantly British piece of work; a stroll across a warped Albion where only a couple weird like Chris and Tina could live.
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