Monday, 4 February 2013

Sightseers: This Tainted Love

Sightseers pitches itself as a black comedy set on the English caravan trail, a Bonnie and Clyde for the Midlands. Stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram wrote the script - along with additional material from director Ben Wheatley's (Kill List) collaborator Amy Jump.

Sightseers directed by Ben Wheatley Alice Lowe Steve Oram

Combined with an excellent score - and a delightfully wicked trailer - it could almost be set in the same universe as producer Edgar Wright's Hot Fuzz, which featured Lowe as an ominously dead-eyed supermarket shop assistant handy with a Stanley knife. In the satirical cross-hairs are the smug presumptions of parochial Little Englanders, as well as the curious tabloid fascination with murderous couples.



Tina and Chris are a young couple, escaping from their dreary suburban lives to go on a road-trip around England's most unlikely tourist attractions - such as pencil or light rail museums. Chris has also promised his girlfriend an erotic odyssey, although she quickly notices her tender lover has a quick temper, particularly around people who drop Cornetto wrappers or even speak in an upper-class accent. On the other hand, the trip affords her some escape from her harridan of a mother (Eileen Davies - excellent), whose emotional abuse has reduced Tina to a mumbling, shrinking violet.

Perhaps this is why she seems oblivious for so long that her boyfriend is a psychotic murderer. The moment of revelation, when it comes, is instead triggered by the unexpected outburst - and line of the film - "That's not my vagina!" Curiously when Tina realizes the truth she is not horrified, but instead enthusiastically embraces a life of serial killing. 

Sightseers Tina and Chris

The key joke of the film is a brave one - given the history of serial killing couples in the UK, such as Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, or The Wests. Of course film has given us less grotty versions of these horrific stories, such as the aforementioned Bonnie and Clyde, Terence Malick's oddly poetic juxtaposition of murder and poetry in Badlands and Quentin Tarantino's modern update of the trope with Natural Born Killers. These films are principally entertainments. The characters are often sociopaths, but they are also young and attractive. Oram's bushy features and Lowe's gormless wide-eyed expression is far less Hollywood. 

Except of course the script has a sting in the tail, which is that it piggybacks on this history of serial killer romances in film and then becomes something else. In one scene Tina launches into a weirdly naive speech about how empowering murder is. The film appears to be suggesting that she is herself a psychopath, much like the spontaneously violent Chris. Another reading though is that Tina finds herself caught between two domineering personalities - the malevolent Carol and her serial killer lover who has a host of justifications for his crimes. Both threaten to crush her and Tina's choice becomes whether she can live her own life. The soundtrack ironically sums up the conflict with Soft Cell's Tainted Love and The Power of Love by Frankie Goes To Hollywood. There's also a great scene with the mother, who is complaining she has no friends she can talk to. When Tina assures her that she is her friend, the acerbic reply comes: "You're not a friend - you're a relative."

So the central mystery of the film is what exactly is unspooling in the dark corners of Tina's mind. Lowe's performance is wonderful, an innocent who happily begins aping outrageous behaviour in order to become more attractive to Chris. How clear this is within the context of the film though is questionable, as Wheatley delights in showing crushed skulls and twisted bodies on camera, whereas perhaps a more understated approach would have been welcome. Compare the murders in Sightseers to the depiction of increasingly macabre and brutal killings in Luther. In that grimly amusing British television series some of the most shocking scenes have relied on suggestion and even on occasion occur in the far background of the shot. Sightseers instead plumbs for the black comedy death-rattle chuckle, winking at the audience with each mangled torso. Such an approach is more suitable for the dynamism of a short, but feels stretched thin at feature-length. 

Still Lowe and Oram have a wonderfully dark and disturbing premise here, one which the likes of Ken Loach say could have struck a home run with. Tina is a fascinating creation, like Corneille's Médée driven to monstrous acts by an improbable love and making a fatal choice that changes our perception of her. She deserves a better film.

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