I entered into Ben Wheatley’s latest feature, Sightseers, with promises that I’d be physically incapable of taking a pause from my raucous laughter. Despite this, and being told that Sightseers was one to watch at Cannes Film Festival, I was nevertheless underwhelmed.
Sightseers concerns the travels of Tina and Chris, a middle aged couple heading out to explore some less-than-exception corners of Northern England – including but not limited to ‘exciting’ destinations the likes of the Keswick Pencil Museum and Crich Tramway Village. Throughout the course of their trip, however, Chris becomes increasingly irate with litterbugs, noisy British teens and any other form of opposition that the two are confronted with. Over time, the normal-seeming Chris becomes so angry that his rage becomes an impetus for an unrelenting killing spree that leads a trail of blood behind the pair, lacing through the English countryside.
The current “golden boy” of the British cinema scene, Ben Wheatley, is a dab hand at dark flicks. Given the success of his previous venture, British horror Kill List, it is unsurprising that he masterfully maintains a grim atmosphere so intense it errs on surreal. He, with cinematographer Laurie Rose, uses lingering shots of green and grey countryside and craggy seashores to give audiences a sense of parts of the world that are utterly unremarkable. Wheatley works with the material given so perfectly that it’s hard to imagine it could have been executed any other way.
He furthermore succeeds in drawing performances out of Lowe and Oram that are down to earth yet unsettling, accenting the backdrop that is drab almost to the point of being Kafkaesque. His proclivity for improvisation means that, most likely, many of the best lines from the film could well have been off the cuff.
With a capable cast and director, it is so unfortunate that where the film fails is in its script and plot both penned by stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram. While it is classified as a “black comedy”, I feel the storyline falls between two stools. It never fully achieves either aim – not quite horrific enough to be black and not quite funny enough to be comedy. Instead of the roaring laughter that was promised, I only heard the occasional titter and odd laugh from my fellow cinemagoers. What I believe to be the issue was the atmosphere – the entire film felt so tense that that it possibly hampered the viewer’s ability to take in the lighter and funnier points. The murders, while chilling, fail to fully shock in a way that could leave one with the appropriate sense of darkness.
This film is certainly not one to be written off but equally it is not deserving of the hype and excitement it has generated. Sightseers is Wheatley’s first time adapting to screen a script that he himself didn’t create. Given that the script is the main problem, I am unhappy to say that this film could easily have been the next must-see dark comedy had Wheatley himself had more control over the story and dialogue and hence been able to give the film his distinctive touch that has made his previous films real gems.