Where do British serial killers go on holiday? Caravanning in the Lake District, of course.
Walkabout by Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Where do British serial killers go on holiday? Caravanning in the Lake District, of course. Since its acclaimed screening in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes, Ben Wheatley’s blackly comic third film Sightseers has had so much pre-release publicity that it’s no secret that Chris and Tina leave a trail of carnage in their wake as they tour a series of unsuspecting and sometimes kitsch heritage sites. Both Screen International and the Guardian have described the film as Nuts in May meets Badlands, though admitting this doesn’t do justice to just how funny it is.
Sightseers owes much of its success to the strength of its two quirky central characters, Chris and Tina, richly comic creations developed over several years by co-writers and co-stars comedians Alice Lowe and Steve Oram. Ginger-bearded Chris bristles with easily ignited indignation. Wondering, naive Tina lives with her controlling mother, a strategic invalid. Both Chris and Tina are complex, marginally inadequate thirty-something loners from the suburban West Midlands looking for love, who – nice touch, which speaks volumes about their aspirations – met in a capoeira class. Now they’ve found each other, as a couple they can take on the world. Though it’s early in their relationship, Chris invites Tina to join him on their first holiday together, touring heritage sites in Yorkshire and Cumbria in his traditional Abbey Oxford caravan. What could be more British than that? Only the miserable weather, which necessitates cagoule wearing throughout, and also – forgive me – their dry Brummie accents, capable of turning the words “her sanctum” – where Tina’s mother keeps her paintings – into a double entendre.
To the strains of Tainted Love, Chris and Tina motor to their first destination, Crick Tramway Village. There they meet the first of a series of people who irritate them by transgressing Chris’s moral code – dropping litter! in a heritage site! – with unexpectedly fatal consequences for the offender. In this case, Chris accidentally on purpose reverses the caravan into him, creating sudden sexual arousal for himself and Tina. As Chris’s behaviour increasingly reveals his psychopathic tendencies, Tina’s initial incredulity turns to complicity. When she accepts the mint Chris offers, their pact is sealed. The pair’s next stop at a campsite, Dingley Dell, neatly satirises the New Age world of yurts and communal drumming, but also the self-contained world of Tina and Chris, as she proudly dons the home-knitted pink crotchless underwear set she has made to seduce him. Chris bludgeons to death a neighbouring caravan owner who fills him with class envy – but whose identity as a published author, something he’s been unable to accomplish himself, he starts to assume, seeing Tina as his muse. Tina’s reponse is to be determined it won’t ruin their holiday: both are willing to compromise to avoid being alone.
Onward to Blue John Cavern, Fountains Abbey and John Hurt’s voiceover recitation of Blake’s Jerusalem. Amid the ruins, Chris brutally and with lurid foley sound effects, disposes of an officious rambler who objects to Tina allowing ‘her’ dog (misappropriated from their last victim) to leave excrement on the monuments, threatening to report them to the National Trust. Chris brushes off this easy target: “He’s not a person, he’s a Daily Mail reader.” Serial killing for Chris and Tina has become personal empowerment. We have been led into the story through Tina’s perspective, and we see her joining in and becoming a serial killer as well. And in comedy terms, it’s the liberating antithesis of British stoicism, of putting up with things and apologising.
When an annoyingly noisy hen party interrupts the couple’s romantic restaurant dinner, Tina pushes the bride-to-be over the precipice outside. Although murdering innocent people wasn’t something Tina had previously considered, she realises Chris’s bloodlust has unleashed something in her and she goes for it. It’s her first murder and she expects Chris to be pleased. But they have their first argument and Tina visits the Keswick Pencil Museum on her own, in a bleakly comic scene writing a letter to Chris with a giant pencil almost as big as she is, and making an anguished phone call to her unsympathetic mum: “It’s all gone wrong!” The deaths pile up as they drive north through a series of increasingly wild beauty spots filmed as landscape panoramas – Tina, now significantly at the wheel, casually knocking a jogger off the road in a hit and run. Chris is panicked by Tina’s recklessness and the frequency with which they are now racking up deaths: “I’ve done more murders in three days with you than I did in the six months since I got made redundant!” he complains.
As their relationship develops, the weather, always overcast, worsens accordingly. The landscape becomes more menacing and in a hail-lashed passing place on the edge of a slatey mountainside, Chris and Tina are joined by Martin (Richard Glover), whom they met previously, in his ludicrous, self-built pedal-powered carapod (a one-man caravan on wheels). After a hideously cringe-making evening in the caravan, Martin makes an excuse and leaves, packing himself into his carapod for an early night. Unfortunately, he’s parked temptingly on a cliff, the by-now-inevitable happens and things go over the edge – for Tina, after a row with Chris, metaphorically – but for Martin, literally. There’s no turning back now, they’ve burnt their boats – actually, their caravan – and on remote Ribblehead Viaduct, the lovers make a tragi-comic suicide pact. Holding hands, as The Power of Love fills the soundtrack, they prepare to jump… But do they? Tina deliberately lets her hand slip from Chris’s, and he plummets alone. She walks away. Their roles have reversed. She has turned out to be the stronger of the two in the end.
Sightseers leads its audience complicitly to a very dark but very funny place where, the more gruesome the murder, the louder one’s laughter grows. Oram and Lowe originally developed the idea for television, but it was turned down as “too black”, but luckily it was picked up for the more accommodating big screen. Its road movie set-up uses the British countryside settings in an original way and the direction hits a consistently droll tone. It is director Ben Wheatley’s third film, described by its producers, who also produced his violent and well-reviewed horror Kill List, as “not as horrible” and “lighter”, despite its murderous subject matter. It has just gained seven nominations at the British Independent Film Awards. At last, a really well-scripted and well-directed, funny British comedy. And who hasn’t, however fleetingly, had their own fantasy of doing the same as Chris and Tina? Noisy popcorn eaters in the cinema, anyone?
Sightseers is released on 20th November 2012 in the UK