Monday, 10 December 2012

[Review] Sightseers - The Caravan Condition

Sightseers (2012)

Director - Ben Wheatley
Country - United Kingdom
Starring - Alice Lowe, Steve Oram
Running time - 88 minutes

Synopsis - Chris wants to show girlfriend Tina his world, but events soon conspire against the couple and their dream caravan holiday takes a very wrong turn.

Britain as a society is one built upon its traditions, and perhaps none is more ludicrous (or cherished) than that of the sacred caravan tour from campsite to campsite, complete with an abundance of vexatious locals and washed out skies. Led, marketed and even defended by a safe middle class sense of freedom that allows one to enjoy the hospitality of the great outdoors filtered through rusty showers, pull-out beds and deck chairs. Not to mention the immense strain on our mental well-being that comes with being confined to sailor-esque quarters with our nearest and dearest. For Ben Wheatley the caravan tradition masks something much more disturbing lurking beneath the surface of our mud-stained paradise. 

There is a direct primal quality to Wheatley's films, one scarcely engaged or even referenced in Britain or indeed British cinema since the 1970s. However he engages with it head on, tapping into our most visceral urges through aggressive slow-motion close-ups dominated by his male leads. More sinister however are the various cults and rituals that take place up and down the country, in last years Kill List it was the ultimate expression of middle class denial, here it infests our characters psyches and brings them into a hypnotic, violent trance. Murder is perhaps the most natural and basest means of expression.

Drawing on a legacy of lovers-on-the-run films, Sightseers' takes notes from Natural Born Killers, Mike Leigh's Nuts in May and one very obvious visual nod to Terrence Malick's debut Badlands. The message here may not be remotely original, but through the jet black realism humor, audaciously straight soundtrack and increasing absurdity of Chris and Tina's blood-stained 'erotic odyssey' the film amounts to more than the sum of it's influences. 
Too easily could this descend into a crass exploitation of our customary ideals at the expense of some cherished British quirks. However, neither writers Lowe or Oram, nor Wheatley are looking to mock. Instead, they find a great deal of admiration and beauty within their locales as Chris and Tina stare slack-jawed at the world’s largest pencil in the Keswick Pencil Museum or dance in the reflected light of the Blue John Caverns in Derbyshire. However there is an intense haze that blankets the landscape, inhabiting the Lake District in an alien yellow or unsettling mist, it spills into the attractions. The retired trains of Crich Tramway Museum become industrial skeletons, slapped with the label of 'heritage' as if to install a sense of entitlement and responsibility into those who come to stare. Something which Chris adopts instantaneously, or so it appears in his satisfied smile as he backs over an indignant litter bug with his caravan. This is when things change.

It is not Chris' vigilant desire to protect British tourist attractions that drives him to, as Tina puts it 'murder innocent people,' but a deeply seated social resentment. After all when he is confronted by an angry member of the National Trust after dog Poppy fouls an ancient site of interest, Chris brutally murders him, justifying it with 'He's not a person, he's a Daily Mail reader.' As the body count racks up, Tina slowly emerges as the more dominate of the two, much to Chris' discontent. Murder may be the most natural means of expression, but it is his means, and having his girlfriend take matters into her own hands usurps his control. The aforementioned jet black humor has taken the stage here, but it comes with an unnerving sense of guilt and discomfort that comes from each gloriously gooey murder. Unfortunately this wears the film down, and it runs out steam shortly before redeeming itself with an astonishing finale.        

Perhaps it isn't the fault of Chris and Tina for the disastrous outcome of their holiday, but a result social and economic climate of which they are a product, an unsettled, tainted generation who find themselves constrained by an obligation to fix the world. Led by Wheatley’s assured direction and two career-making performances, their tragedy becomes giddy pop-enjoyment, twisted thrills and a surprisingly sombre romantic charm. Eventually, as with most Holidays, Sightseers’ overcomes its issues through the tinted eyes of post-viewing reflection. You might not be after an 'erotic odyssey' of your own anytime soon, but the British countryside has never housed a more mysterious and lurid beauty.  


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