Ben Wheatley follows up Kill List with the very funny Sightseers, which boasts arguably the best on-screen couple of the year...
There’s a lot to be said for trivia. Where does a bottle of pasta sauce go on the kitchen counter? Do you need pot pourri to go on holiday with? In fact, does a caravan look better if it’s decorated, or left quite plain?
Trivia is something that director Ben Wheatley’s third film, following Down Terrace and Kill List, both thrives on and skilfully utilises. Because what Sightseers does is use small conversations and little details to make its pair of central characters so much more believable. Their goals in life, and their thoughts on day to day matters, are all the more tangible and believable because they talk about things that are so grounded and apparently non-consequential.
It’s not giving anything away though to suggest it’s worth staying on the right side of them. The couple in question is Chris and Tina, who when we first meet them are about to embark on a first holiday together. It’s quite a break, too: a collection of very British tourist attractions, that they’re travelling between on a caravan holiday. Said tourist attractions provide an excellent, eccentric backing for the film that follows. And might just make you want to buy a quite large pencil.
A gloriously comic opening sets the tone of the film nicely, as Tina’s suspicious mother (played by Eileen Davies) spits out quite dark, very funny lines (one of which leads suddenly and wonderfully into the appearance of the title card), but it’s not long before the couple’s road trip is underway. And what an adventure it proves to be. Bluntly, Sightseers is one of the funniest films of the year, and a film powered by one of the most convincing central pairings seen on the big screen in some time. Alice Lowe as Tina and Steve Oram as Chris (who co-wrote the script) have been playing these characters for many years before the film came along, and they inhabit them terrifically well. The interplay between them, the deliberate pacing of some very, very funny lines, and the convincing love story that develops are all compelling to watch. They savour dialogue, rather than snap at it. Expect deserved awards for the pair of them.
Save one for Ben Wheatley, though. While showing a real patience for letting the comedy play out, Sightseers has many darker edges too, as Chris and Tina’s caravanning adventures take some less savoury turns. As such, Wheatley punctuates the comedy with some quick, savage violent elements, in one case really not holding back on showing the physical impact of it on one of its victims. It adds a tinge of unease to the humour, which serves the film well.
Tightly packed at under an hour and a half, Sightseers is assured, focussed film making, with Wheatley also choosing carefully when to unleash some diligently-chosen music, or occasional slow motion.
He does tread a very, very tight line with the treatment of his leading two characters. Are we supposed to be laughing at them, for instance, or empathising to a degree with them? It felt like the latter, particularly on a second viewing of the film, but there’s still some space to debate that. Furthermore, the convincing relationship between Chris and Tina does veer quite a lot as the film progresses. The film hinges, and succeeds, because of the central pairing, and the love story between them (and an unconventional, compacted love story is ultimately what Sightseers feels like at its heart) but there are one or two moments to just slightly test your belief in them as Sightseers moves into its second half. Come the sudden ending, though, it’s hard not to have been won over.
That’s because Sightseers is a real treat. It doesn’t outstay its welcome, delivers more belly laughs than pretty much any comedy this year, and for all the trivia it relies on, it never then tries to trivialise the lives of Chris and Tina, nor their actions. For that, and a few other reasons aside, it deserves to be a sizeable success. And Ben Wheatley is, surely, now firmly established as one of the most exciting talents in British cinema right now.
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