The debut feature film from The Office and Extras creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant is a world away from their exercises in excruciating humiliation and pathos, and Cemetery Junction is perhaps their most touching and accomplished work to date.
In many ways it is a love letter to the past, and its 1970s setting is bathed in a rose tint which belies the timeless themes of becoming greater than the accident of your birth, and escaping the social traps which lie in wait. With three virtual unknowns leading an accomplished British cast Gervais and Merchant took a chance with this film, and its success renders Cemetery Junction a fine addition to an already exceptional year for British film.
Centering on three childhood friends on the brink of adulthood, seemingly stuck in their dead end town, the film charts the turning point in the lives of factory worker Bruce, hopeless romantic Snork and the aspirational Freddie who begins the film on his first day as a life insurance salesman. Set firmly within the narrow confines of suburban life Cemetery Junction is a coming of age tale told with a truly British identity, put in place not just by the location but with a lackadaisical class bound struggle with the future; the humour (there’s a Noddy joke which is nicely crass and acerbic) and the snobbery are not only indicative of the period, they are essential to our understanding of the world.
Gervais and Merchant are masters of the social undertows which keep people trapped and each of the characters begin the film in their own particular paths, and while Freddie has the desire to make the class jump it is a superficial road to another, more comfortable, prison.
Cemetery Junction is a state of mind as well as the setting of the scene, and the drama may not be a narrative revolution it is written with enough charm and genuine hilarity to elevate it from the pedestrian, and you will reap the rewards as long as you don’t expect a movie version of The Office. It has an episodic nature which the strong performances and engaging threads of narrative do well to bind together but there is a beating heart to this film and it lies in the hands of the three central performances.
Speaking about the three male leads with Stephen Merchant he told me a story about how he and Ricky were waiting for the three to come in and audition and looked out of the window to see the three of them walking down the street laughing and joking around and this pretty much sealed the deal for them. Only later did he and Gervais find out that it was a planned performance, but the three convinced them, and they do an amazing job of bringing these childhood friends to life on screen.
While the emotional journey is one shared between the three we begin and end with Christian Cooke’s Freddie, whose desire to escape the slow ascent to a middle class is trapped in a narrow minded malaise, and he does a great job when sharing the screen with the suitably odious Mike Ramsay, played to oily perfection by Matthew Goode, and the parochial Insurance kingpin (and Freddie’s boss) Kendrick, another fine turn by Ralph Fiennes. He and Tom Hughes as the cynical and effortlessly cool factory boy Bruce are destined for big things, and thank goodness Gervais and Merchant were able to avoid the cloying nostalgia and offer up some tangible emotional trajectory for these two.
Several scenes stand out fresh in my mind, notably the retirement party where Freddie reluctantly allows Bruce and Snork gatecrash and which finishes with a rousing rendition of Cum On Feel The Noize, and is a study in the petty social disasters which seem to plague our lives, and the team of Gervais and Merchant are to be applauded for knowing when to stand back and allow their actors to do the work for them; in just a few reaction shots Emily Watson’s understated despair is palpable. This is partly where the succeeds and there’s an assured maturity in the narrative and the direction which results in a wonderfully funny and touching story, one which will resonate long after the credits roll.
There’s only one problem: I can understand why Ricky Gervais needed to be in the film, not least the marketing factor, but also because it’s his movie and he can do exactly as he pleases but I found his presence dented the film’s cogency, as the kitchen sink elements of the Taylor household were punctuated with Gervais playing himself and being such a huge star the film didn’t need that spotlight shone on it.
Despite this I found my stop at Cemetery Junction an immensely enjoyable one. Gervais and Merchant have done a good job of evoking the Billy Liar vibe while sticking adding their own brand of social awkwardness and the pay off, which is no surprise when it comes, is earned and this is thanks to the tremendous work by the actors and a genuinely funny script.
Cemetery Junction is out in UK cinemas tomorrow.