Sightseers: Cannes Review

Very British blend of quirky character-comedy and homicidal violence has all the makings of a midnight-movie cult classic.

Directed by Ben Wheatley, the pitch-black British comedy tells the story of a nerdish couple who semi-inadvertently embark on a killing spree.

The most consistently hilarious Brit-com for a good half-decade - probably since Edgar Wright's Hot Fuzz - Sightseers cements director Ben Wheatley's reputation among his generation's smartest and edgiest filmmakers. A pitch-black and sometimes gorily violent laugh-riot in which a nerdish holidaying couple semi-inadvertently embark on a killing spree, it was snapped up for North American release by IFC just before bowing - out of competition, bizarrely - in Cannes' Director's Fortnight sidebar.

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While its offbeat quirkiness and plethora of specific cultural and geographical references make it likely to play best to UK audiences, with careful handling this raucously enjoyable hybrid of two very different 1970s classics - Terence Malick's ever-influential Badlands and Mike Leigh's teleplay Nuts In May - might also spawn a cult international following as a surefire midnight-movie option for festivals, and on DVD/VOD. Wheatley's characteristic fondness for extreme imagery - as displayed in 2010's critical favorite Kill List - will, however, restrict broadcast-tube options and may impair theatrical prospects.

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Essex-born 40-year-old Wheatley's two previous features - including Brighton-set crime-family chronicle Down Terrace (2007) - combined sharp humor and explosive bloodshed with appealingly confident aplomb. Wheatley's m.o. involves smartly toying with genre conventions and showcasing superb contributions from relatively unknown performers. Having co-written both of his first pictures, he now works from a screenplay credited mainly to Sightseers' two leads - Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, who spent several years honing their characters on stage and on the small screen. The benefits of this unusual preparation are evident from the first scenes, whose spot-on dialogue and minutely-observed characterizations are matched by the eagle-eyed attention to details of dress and decor by Jane Levick (production designer) and Rosa Dias (costumes).

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Mousy wallflower Tina (Lowe) and her boyfriend of one month - red-bearded, balding Chris (Oram) - prepare for their first getaway together under the disapproving eye of Tina's mother, worrywart widow Carol (Eileen Davies). The thirtysomething duo stock up their 'caravan' - a homely, distinctively British variant of the larger American trailer - and hit the road on an itinerary taking them from the Midlands north to Yorkshire and the Lake District, with a selection of old-school museums and attractions along the way. But it isn't long before frustrated writer Chris's ire is stoked by an irresponsible litter-lout and first blood is spilled, albeit semi-accidentally. As the lovestruck pair continue their tour of historic sites and beauty-spots, the body-count steadily rises - likewise the domestic frictions inside the caravan...

Much of Sightseers' humor sparks from the unlikely contrast between Chris and Tina's dowdy ordinariness and the often-berserk nature of their crimes. Even after several kills, the duo - whose energetic sex-life yields several droll sequences - continue to chat and bicker over trivialities, exactly like regular folks. Expert modulation of disparate tones within the same scene ensures that while this is yet another road-movie about a murderously amorous couple - a tradition that includes Leonard Kastle's The Honeymoon Killers, Tony Scott's Natural Born Killers and even Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde - Wheatley and company's new variation has a wit, brio and panache entirely its own.

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There's also the matter of the cleverly-chosen and pungently British backgrounds - from Penrith's cozy Pencil Museum to the spectacular Ribblehead Viaduct during a genuinely unpredictable finale - whose charm and beauty take on a pleasingly sinister cast here. Regular Wheatley collaborator Laurie Rose's widescreen digital cinematography presents the countryside in a sufficiently splendid and alluring manner to delight UK tourist authorities - even if Wheatley's vision of this "green and pleasant land" tends to be strewn with messily-dispatched corpses.

Oram and Lowe's total immersion in the characters and their off-kilter world easily transcends their relative paucity of movie experience - both appeared in minor roles in Kill List, with Lowe having also popped up (as a very different 'Tina') in Hot Fuzz. That movie's Edgar Wright takes an Executive Producer credit here and was the stars' initial idea as director - but Wheatley's track-record with his self-penned films makes him an ideal fit for this tricky material. It's rare and heartening to see such a talented film-maker retaining his distinctive, uncompromising approach as he takes a step towards the mainstream. Sightseers' 'Palm Dog' award at Cannes - awarded to four-legged scene-stealer 'Smurf', a delightful presence as purloined terrier Banjo - should just be the first of many accolades. 

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight - Special Screenings), May 23, 2012.

Production companies: Big Talk, in association with Rook Films

Cast: Alice Lowe, Steve Oram, Eileen Davies, Richard Glover, Jonathan Aris, Monica Dolan

Director: Ben Wheatley

Screenwriters: Alice Lowe, Steve Oram (additional material by Amy Jump)

Producers: Nira Park, Claire Jones, Andy Starke

Exective producers: Matthew Justice, Jenny Borgars, Danny Perkins, Katherine Butler, Edgar Wright

Director of photography: Laurie Rose

Production designer: Jane Levick

Costume designer: Rosa Dias

Music: Jim Williams

Editors: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley, Robin Hill

Sales Agent: Protagonist Pictures, London

No rating, 88 minutes.