By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 2010; 12:00 AM
In the original, British version of TV's "The Office," co-creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant made life in the UK look like an eternally gritty, hilariously squirm-inducing slog. In "Cemetery Junction" -- a coming-of-age drama the pair co-wrote and directed, and that debuts Tuesday on DVD ($24.96) and Blu-ray ($30.95) -- they go in the opposite direction, bathing images of Reading, England circa 1973 in rays of abundant, improbably golden sunshine. It's as if they're making up for the bleakness of their television Slough by writing a motion-picture love letter to their native land, one punctuated with supporting turns from some of Britain's finest actors -- Ralph Fiennes, Matthew Goode and Emily Watson.
While "Cemetery Junction" was released theatrically in the UK last spring to generally positive reviews, it has gone the straight-to-DVD route here in the States, a fate that seems all the more ironic after Gervais says on one of the DVD extras that he and Merchant "wanted it to be a real Hollywood movie."
Whatever the reason for Sony's decision, "Cemetery Junction" is a lovingly shot and well-acted film that, try as it might, can't quite overcome its flaws, most notably a failure to raise significant enough stakes for the three young protagonists at the story's center. Freddie (Christian Cooke) pursues the responsible, soul-crushing business of attempting to become an insurance salesman while falling in love with the boss's engaged daughter (a luminous Felicity Jones); Bruce (Tom Hughes) keeps working in a factory and getting into bar fights while swearing daily that he's going to leave his dull, provincial town; and Snork (Jack Doolan), the requisite chubby source of comic relief, tries to figure out how to talk to women without using slang terms that will immediately send them running in the other direction. Plot-wise, that's about as urgent as matters get. As the film meanders toward a series of largely unsurprising conclusions, including one borrowed straight from "The Graduate," it's hard not to want for something a bit more emotionally moving.
That being said, "Junction" is certainly smart and well-crafted enough to have merited a limited theatrical release, especially when one considers the quality of the movies that often get large-scale roll-outs and marketing support from major studios. Surely "Cemetery Junction" has more to offer than, say, the remake of "Nightmare on Elm Street" or the talking-dog debacle that was "Marmaduke."
For starters, its production and costume design -- which recreates the early '70s with a vibrancy and authenticity that never hits the audience over the head with its retro-ness -- is superb, and explored in more detail in one of the DVD's featurettes. And, in addition to the fine work by aforementioned veteran actors like Fiennes and Watson, the newcomers acquit themselves quite nicely. Hughes in particular, as the angry, charming and deeply vulnerable Bruce, stands out as someone to watch, a feat all the more impressive when one realizes this was the first film he shot after graduating from drama school.
One nice thing about seeing "Cemetery Junction" on DVD is the opportunity to immediately view the film with the added context of the special features. The deleted scenes, making-of documentary and numerous featurettes give the audience a clearer sense of the vision behind the film. During an interview, Gervais and Merchant -- the minds also responsible for TV's "Extras" -- say they intentionally veered away from the dismal visuals that tend to characterize British coming-of-age films about working class families, opting instead to capture the time and place through the tinted lens of nostalgia. And they emphasize that point again, multiple times, during an engaging commentary track, one of two featured on the release.
"The minutiae of human behavior is so much more exciting to me than a cast of a million Glorgons that come from the planet Wank," Gervais says at one point during that track, explaining his affinity for taking on character studies like this one. Even if "Cemetery Junction" doesn't entirely work, you leave the experience glad that Gervais and Merchant are still game to continue capturing that minutiae, whether they find it in the dysfunctional politics of a paper company, or in the everyday lives of three English men desperate to get out of their small town while they're young and the rest of the 20th century is still ahead of them.