Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Cemetery Junction (2010) - Review

Cemetery Junction is a funny, sweet coming-of-age story dipped with love in nostalgia. It is clear that this film is a passion project for co-directors Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Their characters are treated with such compassion, especially the young and working-class characters. And the nostalgic aspect of the film makes the world of 1973 Reading, UK, out to be one were the working-class were noble, the young adults are caught in the uneasiness of change and the upper-class are villains (to some extent, not evil, but not noble). The working-class characters are good in that they care about their families in their hearts and work hard; but, given the times and the setting, they are also portrayed as ignorant and the film is filled with off-color humor by today’s standards. The wealthy are just as ignorant and intolerant, but there is maliciousness to it. While, in the world of the film it seems as if there are no bad or truly malevolent working-class characters, there are bad wealthy characters. Gervais and Merchant do not actively preach class warfare with the film, or even elude to it but it is evident that looking back longingly at the time period there is a sense that the workingman is a good man doing noble factory work (or whatever the work may be) while the wealthy man is less than noble, becoming wealthy off others’ struggles and downfalls. The principal wealthy character, Mr. Kendrick, is portrayed as not caring even in the slightest for less fortunate people, even despising them on some level. The young adult characters, which represent the film’s main characters, are caught in the middle, not just of the class system – whether to buy into the wealthy-man’s system of good job, work hard, buy a home, get married, have kids, and so on, or to accept their more natural place (specific to each individual character) of working in a factory (or something similar) – they are also caught in a cultural revolution, which the film captures quite well. There is a strong motif of freedom throughout the film – freedom from the social norms, i.e. factory worker, insurance salesman, wife, mother, excreta. The film champions for its young characters an escape from the norm and getting out there and seeing the world and what else there is for them. But, it is not completely literal in all cases to physically leaving, though physically leaving Reading is part of it. The escape also has to do with growing up and seeing people in a different light – sort like letting their soul escape the self imposed torture, allowing it to be free from the weight holding it and the character back. The coming-of-age story is all about these young adults finding their place in the world or at least growing up to see what is out there and what choices they really have, not being content to merely exist in the structure predetermined for them. And while the world Gervais and Merchant create for their story seems more like a fond memory than the real world, it does serve as a wonderful backdrop, almost utopian in the way it is photographed, for their parable. The film is very funny and features some of the awkward humor that Gervais and Merchant are famous for, but it is not really a straight comedy in terms of being joke driven. The jokes are more a product of the characters and story, rather than the opposite. Thus, viewers going into it thinking along the lines of watching a hilarious Ricky Gervais film (like his TV shows Extras and The Office, even though those are plump with tragic drama) will be taken aback, as this is not that type of film at all. The nature of the world of the film also lends itself to being fairly cliché. However, while it is sentimental and a little cornball, the world works perfectly for the story that Gervais and Merchant want to tell about the characters they obviously love. Cemetery Junction is built on sort of a mushy nostalgic platform, but once in the world, with the characters, it plays out as a tightly structured and neatly comedic fable.

Technical achievements: Gervais and Merchant show their maturity as writer-directors, as the film is very well structured, tightly scripted and very well shot. Their collaboration with very good cinematographer Remi Adefarasin (who shot Band of Brothers, half of The Pacific, Match Point, for example) allowed them to create their ideal nostalgic Reading. The shooting style and color aspect of the film is very warm and loving, and this is also thanks to the fine work by production designer Anna Higginson (who also did Extras). It is almost the complete opposite of another recent film taking place in early 1970s England, Red Reding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974, in which it is extensively gloomy, ugly and dark. The music of the time period and local is very much a part of the story and tone of the piece. The found music works incredibly well with the story and composer Tim Atack (who also appears in the film as part of the party band) compliments with his score. The film’s success hinges on the viewer’s ability to relate to its main characters and their ability to encapsulate the time period and social change infused confusion within the characters. Gervais and Merchant were able to find four fantastically well suited young actors for the characters, and the film is all the better for it. British TV actors Tom Hughes, Christian Cooke, Jack Doolan, and especially Felicity Jones, who lights up all her scenes with energy and youthful exuberance, all are wonderful in the film. Steve Speirs, Ralph Fiennes, Mathew Goode, and Emily Watson provide good supporting work as well. Gervais plays a supporting role too and is funny and heartfelt, while Merchant makes a very funny offbeat cameo. Based in a world and story structure ripe with cliché, the film easily could have been overly corny and drudgingly mushy, but thanks to the work of its cast and crew it is sweet, funny, entertaining, and most importantly emotional engaging and satisfying.

Cemetery Junction is not the comedy we might expect from Gervais and Merchant; it is however a charming comedic story about growing up. 8/10

Available on Blu-ray and DVD at Amazon.com or to rent at Netflix.com


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