Film review: Sightseers (15)

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Director: Ben Wheatley

Running time: 88 minutes


A NEW movie by British director Ben Wheatley is fast becoming one of those grim little pleasures, like peeling a scab.

His last two films, Kill List and Down Terrace, have surprised audiences with their unexpected plot turns and incongruous characters. Sightseers sets off in a slightly different direction – its intentions are more conventionally comic – but it still offers bloodshed and body counts that are all the more unsettling given their mild-mannered domestic ­settings.

Tina (Alice Lowe) lives with her overbearing mother, who is still banging on about Tina’s role in their dog’s accidental death, a year after its demise. So it is something of a relief when her new boyfriend Chris (Steve Oram) turns up with his caravan, and the couple can ditch mum and tour the attractions of the Lake District instead. It’s an especially liberating adventure for Tina, who equips their caravan with some cosy decorations, but also with some racier additions such as a pair of crotchless, knitted knickers.

Wheatley, Oram and Lowe nicely capture the hideous world of British camping holidays, with its sodden weather, chintz cafés, and limited celebrations of local feats of engineering or local industry, so the stage seems set for some of Mike Leigh-style cavortings. However, the Oram-Lowe script has blacker, more transgressive territory in mind. Chris soon emerges as a cagoule-wearing control freak who overreacts badly to careless litterers, rowdy teens and challenges from backpackers. Thus trips to the pencil museum in Keswick begin to be punctuated by sudden casual violence; and instead of being repelled, Tina locates her own homicidal inner child.

As a satire on the intolerant self-righteousness of suburbia, Sightseers is blackly malicious and brimming with excruciating moments. After running over an aggressively obtuse litterbug, Chris mourns: “He’s ruined Crich Tramway Museum for me.”

In the days of double bills, Sightseers would have made a decent B movie because the film works best if you don’t expect much more than an independently-minded feature that isn’t any bigger or more significant than it is. Even at a comparatively short running time, the picture’s bludgeonings become a little repetitive, and while the banality is part of the point, there’s also a sense that this bloody Bonnie and Clyde lack self-awareness to an almost medical degree. A smirk at the expense of grotesques feels a little too easy, and a little too close to smugness. It’s a problem that Mike Leigh has still to resolve too, and he’s been hammering away at that coal face for years. This is only Wheatley’s third feature film, and he has shown himself to be a first-class envelope pusher, walking an uncomfortable line between comedy and misanthropy. Sightseers may not be a perfect work, but it remains a sight worth seeing.

Siobhan Synnot

Glasgow Film Theatre, from Friday, Dundee Contemporary Arts, from 7 December