Ben Wheatley is the current toast of the Brit Cinema scene, but what did DW Mault make of his latest, Sightseers?
Ever been invited camping by a ginger man? I have and it’s not pleasant (the idea rather than the actuality). My experience pales into insignificance in the face of Ben Wheatley’s new film Sightseers. Camping is one of those myriad things I never understood: sun, beaches, Catherine Meyer novels, adults that read Harry Potter, ad nauseum infinitum. Give me a warm bed and hot running water any day – if I want to interact with nature I’ll rewatch Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte or gorge on Malick.
The phrase Sightseers conjures up images of the perverse; couples (they are always couples) dressed alike; the family who have bought their children identical attire, dragging each other round Britain’s banality. Think the Kendal Pencil Museum (no I didn’t make that up) which appears in the film – you’ll never believe a pencil that huge exists …
England (and make no mistake, Sightseers is very much a film about perfidious Albion, not the muddled fragments forced together to create an idea no one wants) is many things to many people; for John Major it’s the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist.
This is a deluded fool harking back to a time that never existed (only in the closeted mind of One Nation Patrician Tories) but it’s a construct, something perhaps the greatest chronicler of the idea of ourselves, George Orwell, knew when he asked: “Are we not forty-six million individuals, all Different?” Which he says is a reason to celebrate: “And the diversity of it, the chaos! The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids hiking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning – all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene. How can one make a pattern out of this muddle?”
Patterns. Patterns underneath the mask that we never see. Only in the cinema do we peer inside the void behind the mask. This is what Ben Wheatley knows and wants to show. Cinema is about showing not telling. But (and there is always a but), there is Wheatley himself. A filmmaker I like the idea of, rather than his films, which I so wanted to like. They try to stand to attention but only ever achieve the state of flaccidity, they strive to be liked (never a very attractive scene), they made me give a Gallic shrug of my shoulders and surprised me how well received they were. This I think is because Wheatley is a filmmaker to his bones and it’s unnerving here in England to be accosted by that.
With Sightseers though I think he’s done something, something marvelously horrid. People have called it a horror version of Nuts In May (Mike Leigh), but that’s too easy. Also what Wheatley does in Sightseers, which in Nuts In May Leigh doesn’t, is to have a sense of place that he actually likes. He likes these camping sites, these pubs, these ‘tourist’ attractions, and most of all these idiosyncratic odd balls: inventors, retirees and out of sorts dog trainers. Also Leigh seems disgusted by the very idea of ‘the ugly’ copulating in their uniqueness (both sexually and societal). Wheatley never is; he knows difference in the beauty in England, his England that is not judged, laughed at or condescended to.
Sightseers follows the misadventures of a newly minted couple: Chris and Tina (Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, who wrote the script after working together as comedians). They take a journey where Chris promises to show Tina his world. In front of them is dog theft, murder and romance; behind them is a two berth caravan… I don’t think Sightseers will have Caravanning Monthly readers running to theatres, but you never know.
At first Sightseers perplexed me. Having not been predisposed to Wheatley I found it misjudged if very funny. But the idea of the internal dynamics of Lancaster’s Fred and Rose West made a twisted sort of dance-macabre-like sense. The notion of the precision of a controlling, pathetic, put-upon male, driven to kill out of a drive to be creative in a world that has nothing but contempt for him, whereupon he judges the higher ups to a perverse logic that culminates in a man being killed for reading the Daily Mail (I nearly cheered). Being outside of loneliness because he’s joined by the victim of mother/daughter envy/hate, who finds herself illuminated (eventually) by the power that the escape of victimhood brings, when the bullied becomes the bully.
This in itself is about the power dynamic that exists with coupledom and the drive to accept that, or the idea that you want something else, something good: self respect and esteem. Maybe Wheatley not having written Sightseers has been freeing? I don’t know, but what I do know is that this is one of the most distinctive English films released this year. So go and see it, it will put you off camping (which can only be a good thing), but I hear the Kendal Pencil Museum has a great B&B…