There’s high expectations for Cemetery Junction, the first collaborative foray into film from the writing and directing partnership of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, and the prospect that faced them must have been nothing if not daunting. How on earth do you follow up something as explosively popular as The Office, the most successful British sitcom of all time, not to mention the similarly multi-award-winning Extras? The answer, it seems, it to go entirely against type and defy expectations. “People may be expecting a straightforward comedy from us,” Merchant has acknowledged. It isn’t.
It’s hard not to feel, as the opening credits roll, a degree of trepidation over exactly which direction the film is taking. With the distinctly mournful and melancholic strings of Vaughan Williams in the background, Cemetery Junction opens like a Ken Loach film, with a montage of factory workers and working class life in the suburbs of Reading in the 1970s, leading the viewer to wonder what the ratio of drama to humour will be. Those familiar with Gervais and Merchant’s previous work will have to divorce themselves from their initial expectations, or preconceived notions of ‘The Office: The Movie’.
But once you come to terms with your surprise at the initial low density of jokes from two comedians, you’ll come to appreciate that Cemetery Junction is a great film, a genuinely enjoyable ‘dramedy’ and a worthy cinematic debut from the duo.
Tonally, it’s anything but mournful, and truth be told the use of Vaughan Williams is something of a red herring (there is actually a fantastic selection of classic seventies rock songs on the soundtrack). File this film under ‘feelgood’, a genre that evokes the horrors of Mamma Mia! but here takes a refreshingly breezy and upbeat look at English working class life in the seventies – a move away from the grittier, gloomier portrayals of poverty typically found in British film, clearly a conscious shift from Gervais and Merchant.
It’s consistently funny throughout, peppered with witty, knowing dialogue. The balance of comedy and drama is tilted carefully enough to squeeze a good few laughs out of you and also move you, if not quite to tears, then at least to the hot sting of an emotional reaction. The big turning point two thirds of the way through is powerful and resonant.
Gervais, usually the acting lead in his work, has bumped himself down to a supporting role and defaulted most of the attention to young lead characters, played mostly by unknowns actors. We focus on three young friends in their early 20s: Freddie (Christian Cooke), an aspiring insurance salesman and the hero of the piece; Bruce (Tom Hughes), a rebellious factory worker; and Snork (Jack Doolan), a dopey assistant train station manager who acquired his moniker “because I’ve got a nose for muff.”
Also thrown into the mix is love interest Julie (Felicity Jones), and a lively array of supporting characters from a superb assembled cast of British acting veterans. Props in particular must go to Ralph Fiennes, who gives a toweringly understated performance as the cold-hearted insurance head honcho Mr Kendrick. Special mention also to the sublime portraits of casual seventies racism, sexism, homophobia and general bigotry found in Freddie’s household, with Gervais as his string vest-donned father, the fantastic and under-used Julia Davis as his mother, and the legendary Anne Reid as the somewhat senile old Granny. The exchanges around this kitchen table are among the most memorable in the film.
It is Freddie who is the heart and soul of the film, and as a protagonist he is very engaging. Played with an easy, likeable charm by newcomer Cooke, Freddie is straightforward and unpretentious. His initial aspirations are to follow in the footsteps of his idol Mr Kendrick: get to a good position in his insurance job, get a good house, a good car, a good wife. As the story progresses he realises that his hero is an icy, unfeeling misogynist with desire only for material gain. He sees his dream job will amount to nothing when he witnesses a devastating farewell speech to a newly-retired colleague (as a thank you for forty three years of service, he receives only a cheap cut-glass fruit bowl). And he is shown from childhood friend and romantic prospect Julie that there is more to life than Reading. Freddie’s journey is satisfying and well-rounded, if a little predictable, and the familiar theme of small town claustrophobia will speak volumes to a near-universal audience.
Freddie’s early desire to settle down is counterpointed by best friend Bruce. Gervais has openly cited Saturday Night Fever as a major influence, and in Tom Hughes, they have their very own John Travolta, Berkshire edition. Bruce flirts, swaggers and fights his way around town, attired in leather jacket and ‘girly hair’ as one policeman calls it, and filled with post-adolescent fire, a true loose cannon. He is every bit the Tony Manero of Reading, so much so that it almost comes across rather derivative, in spite of a decent effort from Hughes to make the character his own.
In fact there’s quite a bit which feels rather familiar. Gervais and Merchant have been clear of their intention to make a genre movie, so they’re on fairly conventional territory throughout, with the effect that it’s occasionally not as fresh or exciting as we might hope from these two. The subplot detailing the burgeoning romance of Snork and a timid cafe worker is so self-consciously sweet and sentimental that it’s in danger of veering towards Richard Curtis-land. Many would argue, of course, that this is no terrible thing, and perhaps not, but we’ve come to expect more from a duo known for their consistent innovation.
There are other elements which don’t work so well. Julie’s engagement to slimy insurance salesman Mike is unconvincing, a lazy rehash of the much overused nice-girl-inexplicably-going-for-the-asshole-guy-before-ending-up-with-the-hero movie cliché, an infuriating contrivance used in everything from Pirates of the Caribbean to Titanic, or indeed The Office. Freddie and Julie’s simmering passion is handled with similarly less subtlety; as their love becomes apparent, they develop photos in a dark room in a scene cringingly resembling the pottery wheel sequence in Ghost.
Minor complaints, however, and though generally the plotting or staging is not wildly original, it’s executed with such warmth, charm and – surprisingly for a film about young people – maturity, that the occasional predictable or clichéd aspects are forgivable in the grand scheme of things. More importantly, they are sensible choices for the direction the co-directors have chosen to take. This is Gervais and Merchant’s most broad, accessible work to date, and it’s bound to work entirely in their favour. Audiences will flock to this film – and so they should.