CEMETERY JUNCTION; Up-lifting & moving

rating: 4

€œI suppose we€™re trying to do a new New Wave€ says Ricky Gervais in the press notes for €˜Cemetery Junction€™, his first feature film co-directed and co-written with Stephen Merchant. An ambitious statement to make, but then Gervais has every reason to be confident. The creators of the international hit sitcom €˜The Office€™ have managed (with the help of €˜Elizabeth€™ and €˜Match Point€™ cinematographer Remi Adefarasin) to turn their by now famous mixture of comedy and pathos into a genuine piece of cinema. The result is something unlike any other British film in recent memory. €˜Cemetery Junction€™ is an uplifting, funny and often moving coming of age drama about young people who dream of leaving their small town (in this case Reading circa 1973) in an effort not to become their parents. It is a universal story reminiscent of the likes of €˜American Graffiti€™ or €˜Saturday Night Fever€™ rather than any recent British film, and yet it also manages to feel quite specifically British it its use of language, references and the setting. Indeed, one of the film€™s triumphs is that it resists the easily exported archetypal view of Englishness shown in the films of Richard Curtis whilst it simultaneously avoids conforming to the €œain€™t working-class life grim€ tract so overworn in UK films centred on blue-collar characters.... Perhaps a key difference here is that (unlike many British screenwriters) Gervais and Merchant grew up in a working-class families and lived in places not to dissimilar to the one portrayed onscreen. They know first hand what it is like to want to break out of a small-town mentality and to want to experience the wider world. They remember the past fondly and vividly (the sets and locations are awash with period detail) but none of it is played for laughs or made kitsch. Likewise, the working-class neighbourhood and the factory are not glamorised, but being poor isn€™t fetishised here either. Crucially, €˜Cemetery Junction€™ doesn€™t ignore the bigotry and social inequality present in 1970€™s Britain, but manages to avoid judging most of the characters (whilst never letting them off the hook) - a tricky balance handled here with considerable skill. Everyone in the terrific cast (a mixture of seasoned pros and people new to film) is superb. Christian Cooke imbues the protagonist (Freddie) with hints of Gervais€™ own delivery, which is only fitting since the comedian portrays his father (as a sort of Alf Garnett clone, albeit a good-natured one). Ralph Fiennes builds on his excellent comic turn in €˜In Bruges€™ to deliver another fine performance of understated menace, whilst his wife is brought to life by the always excellent Emily Watson. Watson gives a subtle and moving performance which forms the emotional centre of the film. Then we have two of the film€™s most exciting young stars: the stunning Felicity Jones as Julie (the daughter of Fiennes€™ Mr. Kendrick and love interest for Freddie) and the electric, almost show-stealing performance of Tom Hughes as Bruce. Bruce€™s story is perhaps the films most interesting character arc and Hughes effortlessly gives a multi-layered performance. Matthew Goode is also worthy of a special mention as the misogynistic and ruthless Mike Ramsey. Perhaps Jack Doolan€™s €˜Snork€™ is played a little too broad in a film where almost everyone else is playing it straight and some of the gags surrounding that character (notably his unfortunate tattoo) misfire. Whilst the dramatic elements are very much in the foreground, €˜Cemetery Junction€™ would not feel like a Gervais and Merchant production if it weren€™t also often terrifically funny. David Earl€™s café owner Brian is a highlight and although he is perhaps as broad a comic creation as Snork he is more grounded in reality (most people will have met someone like Brian€ probably in a Games Workshop). Julia Davis has some particularly fine lines as Freddie€™s mother (€œWhy would you want to go to Paris? There€™s parts of Reading you haven€™t seen€) which help all of the scenes in Freddie€™s family home ring very true, especially those involving Anne Reid as the institutionally racist gran. There is a great sense in these scenes of incremental social changes having taken place over time: Gervais and Merchant have written the father as a slightly broader minded person than the grandmother and in turn the young son (Cooke) is the product of his era, arguing against the casual homophobia and racism on display at the family dinner table (€œWell which are they? They can€™t be lazy and taking our jobs.€) €˜Cemetery Junction€™ is a moving and often funny film which serves as a tight and accomplished filmmaking debut from the Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant partnership (it is certainly a far more polished film than last year€™s fun-but-flawed €˜The Invention of Lying€™ which Gervais co-directed). Unlike anything in recent British cinema, it is certainly one of the most exciting films I€™ve seen this year so far. In my recent interview with the duo, Gervais complained about a British over-reliance on irony (€œAmerican€™s do get irony€ what they don€™t do is use irony all the fucking time!€) and Gervais/Merchant can€™t be accused of falling into that trap with €˜Cemetery Junction€™ which is ultimately quite a sincere film. Of course, there is some ironic humour (€œWhy are you playing this gay music? Stick some Elton John on!€) to be found here, but ironic distance isn€™t the film€™s default position and it is more than happy to earnestly explore themes of friendship, love and happiness without smirking. €˜Cemetery Junction€™ may just be the finest thing to have come from the partnership so far. It will be exciting to see what they do next, though they have now set the bar pretty high for themselves. We will have to wait and see whether it heralds a new New Wave of British filmmaking or not, but either way this is a special film. 'Cemetery Junctions begins it's U.K. showings from tomorrow. You can read my interview with Gervais/Merchant here".
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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, GamesIndustry.biz and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.