Ah, 1970's Britain, you've gotta love it. Bad hair, bad clothes, bad teeth and full of racist, sexist misogynists. Well, so Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant would have us believe. Of course, look at any sitcom from that era, and those stereotypes are rigidly enforced. Love Thy Neighbour, On The Buses, Bless This House are all particularly malignant examples as well as a multitude of others and none of them have stood the test of time (quite rightfully too).
For their first foray into the world of films as producers, writers and directors, Cemetery Junction is a strange departure for the comedy writing duo. With huge success from The Office followed by a surprisingly deep sleeper hit with Extras, a feature film about small-town life in a depressingly grim era of British history wasn't the first thing to be expected from the duo.
Cemetery Junction is the name of a small town where ambition is as stilted as the atmosphere in the local pub. Enter the three protagonists, Freddie, Bruce and Snork who at 22 years old find themselves at crossroads in their young lives. Over the cusp of adulthood, they still long for the childish dalliances that littered their lives up to this moment but are now faced with enormous decisions that are going to change their immature ways forever. Do they stay in dead-end Cemetery Junction (more than just a random name for a town) or do they break free of the confines they find themselves in and discover what the World has to offer?
Freddie (Christian Cooke) has the most ambition. A working life in the local machine tooling factory is not for him and breaks free of his fathers mould (his father played unconvincingly by Ricky Gervais) to become the first member of his family to go to work in a suit at the nearby Life Assurance company as a District Agent (read door-to-door salesman). The Big Boss of the Assurance company, Mr Kendrick played fantastically by Ralph Fiennes, is the epitome of Freddie's ambitions. A large mansion worth well over forty thousand pounds, a Roller, huge responsibilities and more tailored suits than you can shake a stick at. Freddies' dreams of materialism, dynamism, respect and a high life are what makes him question his current lifestyle of petty fights in pubs, painting lewd graffiti, chasing girls and provoking the more-than tolerant local constabulary.
Bruce is the most troubled. His home broken by a wayward mother and his resentment of a drunken, layabout father while he pays the bills thanks to his job at the aforementioned factory is all too painfully obvious, even to his best mates. Played by Tom Hughes, he broods, snarls and smoulders his way through the film. His anger at his predicament leads him into all kinds of scrapes, usually by fighting and lashing out at those he feels have sleighted him. Hughes brings a standout performance and is One To Watch.
Snork played by Jack Doolan is a much-needed comedy element. Woefully inept at 'pulling' girls, his definition of manliness extends to a badly-drawn tattoo of a naked vampire looking out of a window splashed across his chest (complete with reverse on his back, and him displaying himself in his proud erect glory). Trying desperately to hang onto a job at the train station as an announcer despite his so-called mates attempts to get him fired (insulting passengers for one), his only ambition in life is the pursuit of muff, as they put it.
The direction and cinematography is excellent, it has to be said. The 70's have been richly evoked, complete with washed-out hues, awful wallpaper and terrible fashions. The only faults being are the town itself seemingly too rural and quaint to conceivably house 'the worst school in the South of England' and a disjointedness between the locations so sumptuously represented. Flitting between council estate, branch-line train-stop, faux middle-class property excess and rowdy nightclub histrionics, there's little sense of a coherent structure to this poorly-planned conurbation.
The plot meanders along and Freddie's eyes are opened as he meets a childhood sweetheart only to discover she is engaged to his mentor at the Assurance company, the rather snake-like Mike Ramsey (Matthew Goode in a deliciously malevolent role). Witnessing Ramsey emulating Kendricks propensity to ignore the women of their life, their ruthlessness in pursuit of riches and fortune and a long-term future selling something he is hopelessly incapable of doing, Freddie must decide if this is what he really really wants (to paraphrase The Spice Girls) and if he really is any 'better' than his bitter dad and rowdy adolescent friends now that he wears a suit.
It's not belly-laughs, certainly, but there are some standout scenes and comedic beats that are incredibly funny. Snork taking the stage to sing a Slade number much to the crowds adulation before blowing all that goodwill out of the window with a singularly mis-timed and expletive-ridden joke is one such scene. We laughed loud at that one. The humour is uncomfortable in many places but then, Gervais and Merchant are absolute masters at that. Witness Freddies dad and Grandmother ranting about foreigners, blacks, gays and anything else not remotely 'British' or of the perceived 'norm'. Freddies attempts at showing the illogicalities in their arguments are met with stone-walled ignorance. Was that generation as bad as all that? Going by the sitcoms, yes they probably were.
The story is twee and no doubt reflects Gervais' experiences of growing up in a provincial Reading suburb (where Cemetery Junction is based). Coming-of-age stories have been done in their multitude before and no doubt will be a popular choice to come. The key is in making the characters sympathetic and against a backdrop of racist, sexist Britain, the three 'heroes' definitely do that. Freddie in particular, despite his materialistic bluster, is more modernist than most, recognising the path of servitude Julie, the object of his distant affections, will find herself if she continues her relationship with Ramsey, her fathers replicant.
The story pans out to a fitting denouement and while there are no great surprises or shocking twists, the gentle pacing and decent length makes for a satisfying viewing experience. The soundtrack is very evocative too, with some terrific trips down the memory lane of popular music. Recommended.
Rated 15 with some highly-caustic language, including the C-word uttered several times and at one point, shouted very loudly. I'm from Doncaster so we learn that kind of vocabulary in primary school but others may find it a bit too much.
The running time of 1 hour and 35 minutes is paced well. There's not too much padding and the plot is lean enough not to make it feel like a chore.
Karl Pilkington crops up in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo. There's no mistaking the roundness of his head though.