There’s always a difficulty for funny people when they go serious. Gervais and Merchant are funny men but here they attempt a serious ‘coming of age’ story set in Reading, 1973. Their core audience are going to want what they usually do; they, presumably, want to try something different. Laudably the trailer emphasises the lads’ narrative and Gervais as a cameo (though why does it have to have the dreadful American voiceover for what is, in essence, a British film?). What we get is an at times strange mixture of tones with Gervais, playing the protagonist’s dad, doing his usual (very funny) routine but most of the rest of the film has a sober tone leavened by comic moments (including a great performance of Slade’s Come On Feel the Noize). Stephen Merchant also appears, in two roles, but his scenes as the café manager come across as unnecessarily crass.
The focus is on three friends whose ways are about to diverge. Freddie takes a job as an insurance salesmen leaving his mate Bruce in the factory; he sees this as a way of bettering himself by getting a bourgeois lifestyle. The film portrays both options as a dead-end for the characters: in 1973 manufacturing industry was only a few years away from being decimated by the Thatcher Conservative government and we know now what financial services would do to the economy.
The British New Wave films of the late 1950s-early ’60s loom large, particularly Saturday Night, Sunday Morning (1960) for Bruce’s factory fodder character. In the earlier film Albert Finney’s Arthur Seaton says ‘I’m out for a good time – all the rest is propaganda!’ a credo that Bruce lives to. The mind numbing factory work is concisely presented by several scenes where we simply see Bruce turn the machine off at clocking-off time until , apparently decisively, Freddie switches it off for him toward the end. Overall the direction is very good, unlike The Invention of Lies (US, 2009) that Gervais also co-directed. There’s an effective use of the widescreen, particularly in one scene when Bruce talks to his dad; and the lighting’s expressively used too, particularly when Freddie makes a decision about his future.
The performances are great throughout, and although Emily Watson only has a small role – as the neglected wife – she brings pathos to it. Unfortunately for the character she’s married to one of Ralph Fiennes’ brilliant slimeballs. Also great is the music, not only redolent of the era but fitting very well into the drama. Both the casual racism and sexism of the time is shown to be crucial to the understanding of the era. I don’t know why Gervais and Merchant chose 1973; Gervais would have been 12 and Merchant in his mother’s stomach. The ‘coming of age’ film is often autobiographical but whilst Gervais no doubts remembers the time well, he’s far too young for the characters.
Not that that matters, this is a superbly realised, unusual mix of a film that has a satisfying emotional arc; it deserves to do well.