18 April 2010

Pru Romance

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant make a more dramatic effort in their first feature film together, Cemetery Junction, set in the Reading district of the same name in a seemingly endless summer of 1973. Three lifelong friends, Freddie, Bruce and Snork, rattle around the small town causing havoc. They all feel they're destined for greater things outside of their home, even if they're not sure what yet.

Freddie is focused on more prudential matters than his friends, getting a start away from his working class roots in the life assurance business ran by the imperious Mr. Kendrick. His daughter Julie is Freddie's childhood sweetheart, and when she returns to his life, he finds himself torn between realising his dreams or following Kendrick into a life that's profitable, if not complete.
Cemetery Junction was not at all what I was expecting. Sure, I'd heard that this was a more serious outing for Gervais and Merchant, who have still regularly inserted proper human drama into the hysterics of The Office and Extras, but what this film offers is something that's consistently both moving and funny. Their influences admittedly stem from Saturday Night Fever and Rebel without a Cause, but I caught more of a whiff of Stand By Me from this, albeit setting the teenage unrest trope in a sleepy English suburb rather than across America. It somehow still feels fresh though.

In no small part, this is down to the cast's performances, none of which are really any less than excellent. To single out one truly wonderful performance, Emily Watson makes a very powerful turn with a few brief scenes as Mrs. Kendrick. To Freddie, she comes to symbolise all that is unfulfilled about your dreams and potential when you're a kid. Her performance is understated, but you can't take your eyes off her whenever she trudges on-screen as the wife to a marvellously sardonic Ralph Fiennes, as Mr. Kendrick.

Even though Watson very much forms its heart, the meat of the story largely goes to Christian Cooke as Freddie, with a nice bit of rebellious angst for Tom Hughes as Bruce. Cooke is the tit who was in Demons and the like on telly, but his big-screen transfer shows he is capable when he has a good script. He sparks off against his winsome love interest Felicity Jones very well, and their romance echoes Tim and Dawn in The Office rather than aping it. Elsewhere, Hughes commands as much attention as anyone else in the story with his troubled relationship with his dad, bringing one of the most moving moments of the film at its climax.
However, Gervais and Merchant don't spare on the comedy they're known for in Cemetery Junction. The state of the police pre-PACE Act, previously played up in Life on Mars, gets a few laughs in the shape of a schlubby and likeable copper who isn't above dishing out a beating to help Bruce learn a lesson. Gervais himself makes a marvellous double act with Anne Reid and they get some of the film's biggest laughs as Freddie's dad and nana respectively. Jack Doolan is endearing as Snork, effectively serving as the dirty-minded comic relief, but even his character gets a resolution before the closing credits. "Barry from Eastenders" is nowhere to be seen, but there's certainly no shortage of comedy, including the reason why Noddy wears a hat with a bell on it.

Despite its vast menagerie of characters and themes, the film never loses focus. Although the art direction is excellent, there isn't too much time given over to it, as in the recent Tom Ford flick, A Single Man. By making you care for its cast of characters and making the period anciliary to the plot, it's closer to last year's An Education. Although that period detail is there if you're looking, the story never stops driving forward, covering an awful lot of ground in its 94 minutes. Not since Lone Scherfig's film have I felt so acquainted with a period I wasn't even alive in.

Even though it still covers an everyman making good and a message that you should never settle for what you're expected to do, Cemetery Junction still marks the turn of a corner for Gervais and Merchant. Even though they've never indulged in the over-the-top antics of some sitcom comedy in their previous works, this feels even more restrained, and is all the better for it. So much of Emily Watson's restraint in the film speaks for the film as a whole, and some of the best and most moving scenes in the film don't even have any dialogue, proving the duo's directorial skill as well as their considerable writing talent. It wears its influences on its sleeve, but it's still as good (and better, I would say) than many of the texts that birthed it.

Cemetery Junction is playing in cinemas nationwide now. If you've seen it, why not share your comments on the film and on my review below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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