Fans of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant still haven’t seen anything on the big screen as smart, painfully funny, and perfectly realized as The Office and Extras. But while their Cemetery Junction—set in working-class ‘70s Britain—may not reinvent the coming-of-age genre, I adore every nostalgic moment of it.
It’s 1973 in blue-collar Reading, England, and the wild promise of the ‘60s and Swinging London is draining away, even if the news of its demise hasn’t reached small-town England yet. Cemetery Junction is the tale of three young men of familiar types: Snork, the socially inept dork (Jack Doolan in the Jonah Hill role); Bruce, the handsome and cool tough guy (Tom Hughes—whose Richard Ashcroft eyes and cheekbones mark him for likely stardom), and Freddie, the dreamer with larger ambitions than he knows (Christian Cooke, channeling a little early Christian Bale, a little early Ewan McGregor). Naturally, all three are at that point where their care-free, rowdy, raunchy youth is about to run smack dab into their possible futures: lives spent working in factories, train stations, or selling insurance. If not wandering in and out of jail.
I’m a huge fan of Cemetery Junction’s co-writers and co-directors Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, an unabashed anglophile, and a sucker for ‘70s nostalgia movies with great soundtracks. And even more than that, I love coming-of-age films, especially period pieces that hearken back to their creators’ youth–those rose-colored moments when your life could go a million directions. Cemetery Junction captures that cusp nicely—it may rely on well-trod, even cliché storylines from a hundred similar films, but there’s such an earnestness to it (not to mention the exuberance inherent in the genre) as young people dare to dream of escaping the obvious paths set out for them.
This is not a flat-out comedy from Gervais and Merchant, though it’s certainly amusing–the usual wild-oats hijinks and clueless adults are all here. (Cemetery Junction is rated R for language—there’s no sex or nudity in it. Well, okay there is a tattoo of a naked… well, see for yourself.) They’ve left behind the incisive irony they wielded so deftly in The Office and Extras, but what they’ve maintained–what makes Cemetery Junction work–is that balance of hopefulness and melancholy that elevates their UK Office over its US counterpart.
As Cemetery Junction’s protagonists struggle to find what life might offer them beyond the borders of Reading, as they surrender to passionate impulse and light out for the territories (or the Continent), Gervais and Merchant can’t help but gently acknowledge that not everything will work out so wonderfully. That they can slip in that bit of sad awareness and still embrace and encourage their characters’ dreams has always been the film makers’ genius—they’re good-hearted romantics grounded slightly by cynical realism. (There’s a scene with a retiring insurance man that delivers a quiet gut punch about how hollowly life can play out if you just let it.)
And what a fine young cast of unknowns (at least Stateside) they’ve filled Cemetery Junction with. Ralph Fiennes and Emily Watson are on hand to lend their considerable skills (Fienne’s sallow, provincial insurance executive might be in a subtle, insidious way his most villainous role to date), and Matthew Goode (The Watchmen, Leap Year) is fine as a professional and romantic rival. Gervais himself is in a few scenes as Freddie’s father—a role he fills with grumbling, heartfelt affection. But the movie belongs to its endearing leads, Cooke, Hughes, and Doogan, plus Felicity Jones as the object of Freddie’s affection. Bookmark all four for greater future successes, certainly in Britain and hopefully over here as well.
Man, I Need TV When I’ve Got T-Rex?
Also on glorious display is Gervais’ love of ‘70s Brit rock, from the obvious “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting,” through a riotous and gleeful performance of Slade’s “Come on Feel the Noize” (sorry, I kinda have to spell it wrong in a family-ish blog), to the Bowie version of “All the Young Dudes” that you can hear coming a thematic mile away. (“Thunder Road” is not actually in the film, but Gervais has said it was a primary inspiration.)
I understand why Cemetery Junction didn’t get a US theatrical release—it’s veddy British, it doesn’t bring anything new to the nostalgic coming-of-age tale, with films like The Invention of Lying Gervais may never be destined for mainstream American appeal, and fans of Merchant and him looking for echoes of The Office and Extras will come up short.
But this is exactly the sort of well-done, earnest, inspiring-despite-the-melancholy movie that if I were 17 I’d be watching over and over again several times a month. As it is, in my 40s, I’ll settle for happily revisiting it a couple times a year. Either way, whatever your age, Cemetery Junction is a modest-but-wonderful treat.