The crackle of vinyl gives way to sweeping Vaughan Williams strings, as the camera gazes over sun-bronzed English countryside. Vistas of double decker buses and vine-chewed pubs share space with graceful tableaux of hard graft factory work.
This is the 1970s in Cemetery Junction, a fictional town near Reading, home to a trio of cheeky 20-somethings who are still finding their place in life, stuck between youthful rebellion and the inevitable march towards blue-collar labour. Breaking from the cycle, Freddie (Christian Cooke, a sort of British Emilio Estevez, with sandy hair, blue eyes and a boyish charm) decides to shoot for the big money, by going into the life assurance business.
The tone is leaden and poignant, but it doesn’t take long for the first punchline to slice through the atmosphere, bringing with it an eruption of rock music, expressive cutaways and an opening sequence that boldly affirms itself. Of course, this is Cemetery Junction, the debut film from Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, their transition from small to big screen.
What is immediately impressive is that the duo mostly avoid their stylistic hallmarks. Cemetery Junction sidesteps the exercises in cringe humour, or the naturalistic, stammering qualities of both Extras and The Office. In its place is something more filmic, a bright, warm tone that bursts out of the screen, at all times inviting and comforting the viewer with nostalgia and gentle humour.
Freddie is the film’s emotional centre, as his coming of age and search for purpose act as the narrative’s anchor, but Cemetery Junction is populated with an ensemble of notable residents, such as the James Dean-a-like Bruce (Tom Hughes), the dopey, tubby Snork (Jack Doolan), and a strong supporting cast of policemen, family members (including Gervais as Freddie’s factory worker father) and a local cafe owner with thick spectacles and a dirty mind.
Despite this inflated list of characters, Cemetery Junction keeps its focus. Indeed, it is expertly plotted and well executed, as minor twists and developments spin out of the story’s strands with a perfect sense of pacing.
Just as the film seems to coast on its class ascendant narrative, it introduces dreamy aspiring photographer Julie (Felicity Jones), Freddie’s ex-girlfriend from his puppy love youth, who looks like she’s stepped off a Jackie magazine cover. Although, not only is she the daughter of the boss (a stiff-lipped Ralph Fiennes), but she is also engaged to Freddie’s supervisor (a perfectly slimy, smug Matthew Goode). With these complications in place, and with her promise of romance and adventure, the film can really start to fly.
That said, there is the danger that Cemetery Junction, for all its pep, isn’t suitably distinctive or involving. Its themes of coming of age, class anxiety and generational conflict are well-trodden, and the script overwrites these aspects, blowing the subtext’s cover with repeated dialogue of accusation, psychological analysis and confrontation.
The characters’ faults are not so much revealed as announced: Tom Hughes is a compelling screen presence as Bruce, with a simmering arrogance and a Jagger-like strut. He’s a charmer, though, with a grin full of teeth and a fierce sort of protection over his friends. However, the tragedy at the character’s heart – that of misplaced rebellion, and directionless angst – is almost scuppered by the script’s reliance on the naggings, lectures and insight of others.
Likewise, a strong subplot featuring the shut-in housewife of Freddie’s boss, Mrs. Kendrick, is eloquently communicated through subtle direction, as a compromised, gutted life of servitude is summed up with camera movement, space, and silence. Emily Watson uses the most minute shifts in expression to reveal her situation, but it speaks volumes as she stands at a slight distance from her ignorant husband’s shoulder, caged in upper middle class finery. This is fantastic, but later in the film it accrues a blunt sort of overtness, as Mrs. Kendrick, Freddie and others pick up on how she isn’t thanked for her everyday, dutiful chores.
This seems to be a stylistic trait. Cemetery Junction is a tidy, accessible story, with its main characters each receiving their Wizard Of Oz moments of fulfillment or resolution, but there is also a sense that maybe the production team did not have enough faith in their talents to solely explore these themes visually or implicitly.
In that sense, the film’s romantic approach is far too straight shooting. It is entirely enjoyable in the thick of it, but perhaps a little simplistic in retrospect, having a lot of heart, but little bite.
Maybe it is the period setting. While the film’s look is given great style by production designer Anna Higginson and cinematographer Remi Adefarasin, its warm, picture book tones dim the kitchen sink, working class resonance, with Cemetery Junction itself seeming more idyllic than anything. It places the film between the two poles of The Boat That Rocked and An Education, and while it is certainly not as messy as the former, it sorely lacks the edge and flair of the latter.
There is a feeling that Cemetery Junction could have been something different, something to match the conceptual and stylistic audacity of Gervais/Merchant’s TV work. Instead, it is safe and splendid, pleasant and well made. A promising big screen debut as co-directors.
Cemetery Junction is in UK cinemas from April 14th.