There comes a painful and unfortunate moment in just about every young man's life when he realizes that he's outgrown his friends. (If you haven't had that moment, then guess what? Your friends have outgrown you.) In Ricky Gervais and Stephen Marchant's Cemetery Junction, Freddie Taylor (Christian Cooke) has just arrived at that moment. When the picture begins, Freddie has left his factory job, where he worked alongside his dad (Gervais) and his best friend Bruce (Tom Hughes); he's gone to work as an "assurance agent" for Mr. Kendrick (Ralph Finnes), and sees his new boss as a role model who shook off the dust of his very same hometown and schools to become a rich businessman. But he still spends his nights and weekends with Bruce, a roughneck always on the lookout for a brawl, and Snork (Jack Doolan), a vulgar dork with a childish sense of humor. These are not serious friends, and he now has serious ambitions. Or does he?
Writer/directors Gervais and Marchant are, of course, the creators of the original British version of The Office, as well as its follow-up show Extras. Their collaborative feature film debut is, surprisingly, not in that "comedy of awkwardness" vein; it is a low-key (thought often amusing) period coming-of-age comedy/drama. The conflicts and relationships of the picture are fairly familiar: Freddie is embarrassed by his friends, misunderstood by his family, and pines for the boss's daughter Julie (Felicity Jones), a childhood crush who is engaged to his smooth-talking colleague Mike (Matthew Goode), a self-centered dick. What is impressive about Cemetery Junction is how elegantly Gervais and Marchant spin these lower-class, small-town story standbys into something fresh and involving.
The cast helps; Cooke is engaging, Jones is a heartbreaker, and Hughes is very nearly as James Dean-ish as he is clearly trying to be. Most of the important roles are played by unknowns, with the recognizable actors appearing in supporting roles. Among them, Gervais is just funny enough to give the picture a lift without derailing it, Finnes crafts a spot-on portrait of the upper-class business prig, and Emily Watson is sheer perfection as his wife (her last scene is a showpiece of unforced power; I turned to my wife and mused, "And that's why you get Emily Watson to be in your movie").
The drama and humor doesn't always mesh as easily as the filmmakers might like, but when they do--as in the extended "Winners Ball" sequence--the skill and ease of the execution is arresting (we can even overlook the fact that Freddy would never actually bring his friends to it). Gervais and Marchant show solid directorial instincts as well; in the scene where Julie's "future" is hashed out by her father and future husband, with her mother and several business associates looking on, they know that the most interesting person in the scene is Watson, who doesn't have a single line. A nightclub brawl late in the film is beautifully controlled--the way time and sound are stretched show a sense of visual dazzle that came as a surprise to this longtime fan.
Cemetery Junction marks a change of pace and tone for the duo--it's sweet and likable, and only tinged with prickliness (as opposed to their other works, which tend to reverse that equation). It's not the film you'd expect from them, but that, it seems, may be the entire reason they made it.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
Sony's 1080p MPEG-4 AVC transfer is handsome from the rich, nostalgic golden glow of the opening shots forward. The saturation within the 2.40:1 frame is pretty muted--the film's production and costume design tend to lean towards autumnal colors--but the film feels and looks distinctly of its 1970s timeframe, and occasionally pauses to lovingly fetishize the period details, nicely reproduced here. An introspective scene, with Freddy sitting in his darkened living room, lit only by passing car headlights, is marked by rich black levels and good contrast. It's a low-key video presentation, but an evocative one.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is busy for such a chatty movie--it comes right out of the gate with the heavy, well-dispersed sounds of the factory, and blasts the vintage soundtrack at every opportunity. The only trouble is that the cast's thick accents occasionally render the dialogue inaudible, forcing the viewer to crank the volume to levels too high for the frequent music cues. That imbalance aside, the mix has some fine moments--the tightly layered, visceral sound of the turning point sequence, fore xample, or the immersive club scene and the impressive effects work within.
English Descriptive Audio Service and French 5.1 DTS-HD MA tracks are also available, as are English, English SDH, French, and Hindi subtitles. English commentary subtitles are also offered.
The disc's well-stocked bonus features kick off with two Audio Commentaries. The first is from writer/directors Ricky Gervais and Stephen Marchant, and track is quite funny (no surprise to anyone who has listened to their podcasts) but also technically and intellectually keen, as they converse quite eloquently about their methodology and intentions with the film. The second is a cast commentary, featuring actors Christian Cooke, Tom Hughes, and Jack Doolan. The trio genuinely seem to enjoy each other's company, and their track is good-humored and chatty.
The eleven Deleted Scenes (13:36 total) are mostly peripheral, although the scene where Bruce helps Freddie hit his sales goal is pretty clever. The Blooper Reel (13:42) is a bit overlong, but the sound of Gervais's uproarious off-screen laughter is mighty infectious. "The Directors: A Conversation with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Marchant" (15:07) is a slick but insightful featurerette, intercutting an interview with the filmmakers with behind-the-scenes footage and clips; "The Lads Look Back: The Stars Discuss Cemetery Junction" (10:14) is, true to title, a three-man interview with Hughes, Cooke, and Doolan talking about the shoot. "Seventies Style: Production and Costume Design" (8:44) examines the period elements of the production, while four Production Featurettes (6:45, Blu-ray exclusive) spotlight the start of filming, the first week of shooting, the male leads, and the directors, via behind-the-scenes footage and on-set interviews.
The disc also includes several Sony Previews, the Movie-IQ viewing option, and BD-Live compatibility.
Cemetery Junction's straight-to-DVD release stateside (save for a single-week theatrical engagement in Glendale, CA) is downright befuddling; far worse British films of comparable star-wattage--how ya doin', History Boys--have at least received a limited run in American theaters (and Gervais's far-inferior Invention of Lying saw a wide American release less than a year ago). Energetic, gentle, and frequently funny, its less-than-perfect path to disc and well-worn premise shouldn't scare off viewers; the fact that so much of it has been done before doesn't negate how much of it is done well here.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.