tue 20/08/2019

Cemetery Junction | reviews, news & interviews

Cemetery Junction

Cemetery Junction

A coarse coming-of-age comedy from the team behind The Office

Standard-issue rebel: Tom Hughes as a disaffected youth in Cemetery Junction

Cemetery Junction is no ordinary day in the office for Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Anyone seeing their names above the title (or, indeed, Gervais’s inappropriate presence on the poster) could be forgiven for expecting their acute observational comedy, fronted by Gervais’s shtick for wince-inducing egomania. Think again.

This is clearly a deliberate sidestep for the writing-and-directing pair, a reining-in of their comic inclinations for an altogether different sort of film: a period coming-of-age story, laced with broad comedy, romance and social commentary. But while one might admire the refusal to rest on their laurels, the effort isn’t particularly gratifying.

Set in a small English town in 1973, it focuses on three twenty-something, working-class friends: handsome and serious Freddie (Christian Cooke), intent on avoiding his dad’s life on the factory floor by becoming an insurance salesman; Bruce (Tom Hughes), a standard-issue rebel who does work in the factory, merely to fund flirting and fighting nights out that usually end in a police cell; and Snork (Jack Doolan), the fool of the trio, a platform announcer at the titular train station.

Tension is introduced to this lifetime friendship by Freddie’s ambition, which pricks the brooding Bruce’s awareness of his own complacence. In turn, when Freddie meets an old flame, boss’s daughter Julie (Felicity Jones), her talk of travel and adventure makes him realise the limitations of his own, wholly material aspirations. And even Julie’s talk is daydream, she being destined to join her mother (Emily Watson) as kitchen hand and trophy wife.

Gervais and Merchant add numerous strands to their theme of the need for working-class youth to escape “the scrapheap of life”. The trouble is, the more they embellish it, the more caricatured and patronising their view seems. Freddie’s family life (featuring Gervais’s cameo as his dad) is one long, kitchen-table racist rant; Bruce’s dad is only ever seen drunk on the sofa; Julie’s father (Ralph Fiennes) is portrayed as also from working-class origins, whose break-out success hasn’t improved his imagination and who – God forbid – still can’t hold his teacup properly.

The comedy, too, resides in caricature, coming mostly at the expense of the short, dumpy, intellectually challenged Snork and his fellow oddballs at the train station. Such exaggerated proles come close to those of Mike Leigh on a bad day, when one wonders if the impulse is not fond, but misanthropic. While we’re assaulted by Snork’s appalling soft-porn tattoo and thoughtlessly offensive conversational style, The Office and Extras seem a long way away.

Interestingly, while the view is fundamentally pessimistic, the directors want their Saturday Night and Sunday Morning without the kitchen-sink kick in the teeth, which seems fundamentally dishonest. While the leads are distracting enough, the enforced jollity and tagged-on optimism – in part expressed by a glam-rock soundtrack that includes Elton John, Bowie and T Rex – simply don’t wash.

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