That tired old cliché that expectation is the mother of disappointment is proved true once again by this amusing, inventive but decidedly slight third feature from Ben Wheatley, the director of last year’s phenomenal ‘Kill List’. Working for the first time from someone else’s script – ‘Sightseers’ was penned by TV acting and writing team Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, with input from Wheatley’s longtime collaborator Amy Jump – Wheatley struggles to put his own stamp on what is inherently flawed material.
Lowe and Oram play Tina and Chris, a new couple who leave cosy Midland suburbia on a caravan tour around some of Northern England’s least prepossessing tourist hotspots – Crich Tramway Village, Blue John Cavern, the Keswick Pencil Museum. But Chris’s fusty, ginger-bearded exterior hides the heart and soul of a ruthless killer, and it’s not long before the sheer, bloody-minded rudeness of the English public has him reaching for the nearest blunt instrument.
There are undoubted high points here – Wheatley’s tried-and-tested knack for coaxing naturalistic, improvisational performances from his actors results in some off-the-cuff hilarity, though Lowe and Oram’s original script presumably contained its fair share of zingers. The bleak mood – familiar to anyone who’s suffered a low-rent English holiday-from-hell – is beautifully sustained, thanks to Wheatley’s unerring eye for a crumbling ruin or a spot of flaky paintwork.
But the film never really settles into a comfortable style – it’s never quite funny enough to be comedy or quite nasty enough to be horror, and the goofy breadth of the characterisation means that it’s too blunt for satire (though a few sideswipes at our current austerity hell are well placed). We simply never care about either Chris or Tina, even as anti-heroes. Worst of all, the episodic, busy nature of the script means that Wheatley only occasionally gets the chance to spread his wings. One early sequence on a cliff face is stunning, fusing image, music and material to intoxicating effect, but it’s never repeated.
‘Sightseers’ is a film to file alongside the likes of ‘Somers Town’ by Shane Meadows and Michael Winterbottom’s ‘A Cock and Bull Story’: a diverting, enjoyable but not entirely successful experiment, and a minor film from a major director. Someone, get this man a proper budget.