The “big dreams, small town, no chance” premise is a recognizable refrain in literature and motion pictures. Directed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, 2010’s Cemetery Junction is yet another feature to examine this particular quandary. If Gervais and Merchant sound familiar, it’s because they are the dynamic duo responsible for the original British version of the TV show The Office as well as Extras. However, Cemetery Junction is not exactly classic Gervais and Merchant in a strict sense. While the film exhibits wit and provides a number of hearty laughs, at its core it’s a serious drama about life, hope, family, friendship, taking chances and following dreams. Sure, the film never strays far from formula and its conclusion is highly predictable from the outset, but there’s an assurance to the storytelling in addition to several likable characters, strong production values, and a solid blend of humor and heart. Due to these factors, it stands as one of the better pictures of its kind.
Cemetery Junction is set in 1970s England — specifically in Reading, Berkshire where the titular town is located. Freddie Taylor (Cooke) grew up in Cemetery Junction and ends up working at a local factory with his father (Gervais). However, Freddie has larger ambitions — he quits his factory job and begins working for the Vigilant Life Assurance Agency, which is run by former Cemetery Junction resident and local success story Mr. Kendrick (Fiennes). Leaving behind his ’70s attire in favor of slipping on a business suit, Freddie sets out to make a name for himself and kick-start a more affluent future. Not only is this against the wishes of his father, but it also bewilders his two best friends: The reckless Bruce (Hughes) and the absentminded Snork (Doolan). Complications ensue (as they always do) when Freddie reconnects with long-lost crush Julie Kendrick (Jones), who is not only Mr. Kendrick’s daughter but is also engaged to Kendrick’s right-hand man (Goode).
Surprisingly, Gervais and Merchant’s collaborative film debut is not in the “comedy of awkwardness” vein — rather, their effort is a low-key, period coming-of-age tale. It has its amusing moments, sure, but the mood has a tendency to bounce from light-hearted to serious. Unfortunately, Cemetery Junction sticks slavishly to familiar story conventions: Freddie is embarrassed by his friends, misunderstood by his family, and pines for his childhood crush who is engaged to a self-centered dickhead. What’s impressive, though, is how elegantly Gervais and Merchant were able to turn such clichéd plot points and characters into something involving and fresh-feeling. Unsurprisingly, character interaction is one of the strongest aspects of Cemetery Junction; it’s witty and it flows naturally. However — and this is a rather large flaw — the film does not quite connect on any emotional level. It’s difficult to genuinely care about the characters and their situations, though the characters are admittedly likable.
The script was competently translated to the screen through Gervais and Merchant’s fluid, engrossing direction, complemented by absolutely superb production values. The sense of time and place in the film is immaculate. The soundtrack is filled with retro ’70s tunes, demonstrating that the pair of directors have as strong an ear for music as their eyes are for visual composition. This is an unusually beautiful looking British film, as Gervais and Merchant gave the film a lush, warm color scheme. Remi Adefarasin’s cinematography is so skilful that Cemetery Junction actually looks like a nice place to live in despite Mr. Kendrick’s constant proclamations to the contrary. This is a gentle, sentimentalized 1970s without the menace or depression evoked in, say, the British version of the television series Life on Mars.
Additionally, the movie benefits from several strong performances, particularly courtesy of Christian Cooke and Tom Hughes. Both Cooke and Hughes have limited acting experience, yet each of them wonderfully acquitted themselves with their roles. Cooke is boundlessly charming as Freddie, while Hughes is a scene-stealer as the rebellious yet internally conflicted Bruce. And as Snork, Jack Doolan is the film’s comic relief and was saddled with more conventional Gervais/Merchant material. Doolan’s performance admittedly lacks the depth of Hughes and Cooke’s work, but the actor nonetheless provides a number of inspired moments. Meanwhile, Ralph Fiennes and Matthew Goode clearly had great fun as pig-headed misogynists, with the former nailing insensitivity and with the latter turning up the sleaze dial to 11. Also in the cast is Emily Watson, who’s heartbreakingly touching as Fiennes’ long-suffering wife. And finally, Gervais is as hilarious as ever as Freddie’s father — his banter with Anne Reid is side-splitting.
Thematically and narratively, Cemetery Junction is not all that much different from other coming-of-age stories. Nevertheless, the film possesses genuine warmth and was skillfully executed. It demonstrates that Gervais and Merchant are more than capable of handling a 90-minute comedy-drama despite their cinematic inexperience.