Ben Wheatley’s dark comedy isn’t just a brilliant viewing experience, it’s also an example of the British indie film world working well together.
Les Miserables will have its Oscars and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has sacks of cash from the box office, but for me the British film of the year is Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers.
The story follows an offbeat new couple, Chris and Tina, who go on a caravanning holiday that turns murderous. Between kills, they take in such quintessentially British ‘attractions’ as the Crich Tramway Village, the Pencil Museum in Keswick and Ribblehead viaduct.
The film itself is brilliant and original — showing characters we’ve never seen before on screen in locations we’ve never seen on screen. It is faultlessly crafted, expertly paced and blackly comic, but with some moments of warmth amidst the chicken sacrifices and bashed-in skulls.
Some critics have tried to draw comparisons to a combination of Nuts in May and Bonnie and Clyde, but this feels too much like a unique one-off to be pigeonholed.
In addition to what’s on screen, the way that Sightseers was put together highlights the strengths of the British independent film world.
The project is very much the brainchild of writers and stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram. They met on the comedy circuit and started creating the characters of Chris and Tina about seven years ago.
They pitched a Sightseers-like TV series that didn’t get off the ground, but through that pitch they got noticed by director Edgar Wright, who introduced the pair to his usual production company, Big Talk (Wright executive produces).
Such collaboration and encouragement for new voices should be commended — and a ‘well done’ for Big Talk seeing the promise in Lowe and Oram’s story and developing the project for years.
Big Talk’s Nira Park, always eager to champion new British talent, had been impressed with Ben Wheatley’s debut feature Down Terrace and attached him to direct Sightseers, even before his second feature Kill List was a critical favourite. Wheatley’s usual producers at Rook Films also came on board.
The project got financial backing from the BFI Film Fund, Film4 (which was an early believer in the film, working on its years of development), and StudioCanal, a distributor known for supporting Brits now as well as back when it was Optimum Releasing). (It was Big Talk’s deals with Film4 and StudioCanal that got them on board). Another British company, Protagonist Pictures, handles sales.
The film was made at a smart low-budget level (specific costs have not been revealed).
What I love most is that all these partners involved didn’t try to push the film to tick easy genre boxes, or make it less idiosyncratic or twisted. It feels very much like Lowe and Oram’s vision made it onto screen (they had even done research trips in character).
Those two are amazing performers, and the supporting cast is also strong, particularly Eileen Davies as Tina’s scene-stealing, long-suffering mother and Richard Glover as carapod pioneer Martin. And let’s not ignore the canine star, Palm Dog 2012 winner Smurf.
All these ingredients add up to make Sightseers as British as the bottle of gin on Tina’s mom’s bedside table. It feels like a film that could only have been made in England, and yet also a film that can succeed with international audiences because of that specificity.
It’s the old adage that the more specific a story is, the more universal its appeal. Even before its theatrical release this week, it’s already one of the hottest UK exports this year — it got great word of mouth from its special screening at Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, and then won raves in Locarno, Toronto, Sitges and London. It has garnered seven BIFA nominations and I’d love to see it sneak into a few BAFTA categories.
StudioCanal has been building strong buzz via innovative campaigns and regional events (working with partners like Emfoundation, Organic, elevenfiftyfive and Stella Artois). The BFI’s P&A Fund is also backing the release, helping it to get out on 92 screens (compared to 2011’s Kill List opening on 47).
It’s a British film that isn’t ashamed of its commercial appeal — this IS the kind of movie people will see on a Friday night. I hope word of mouth brings audiences out in droves even if they don’t recognise the faces on the poster. Even if it doesn’t break box-office records, Sightseers is still a winner for me. Kudos to all the people and companies involved for making something brilliant, knitted crotchless knickers and all.