Why I’m grateful to women who gave me freedom
Ostensibly, Ricky Gervais’ new film, Cemetery Junction, is a paean to male friendships, the Bostik bond which arises from a series of shared memories and tacit understandings between boys who have advanced from sand-pits to sexual awakening together.
But for me there was another profoundly important, and very moving, message in the film about how women’s lives have changed in the last thirty years, and I admit to leaving the cinema holding myself just a little straighter after seeing it.
I was surprised at the nuanced attention to the lives of mothers and daughters in Cemetery Junction — perhaps because the marketing had led me to believe it would be a very male-fixated film (which I wouldn’t have had the slightest problem with).
But when I thought about it, I realised that Gervais and his writing/directing partner Steve Merchant have always shown great faith in the insight and healing powers of women, and always written about them as a force of salvation.
Yes, The Office was brilliant at showing how men perform for each other like monkeys with an audience at the zoo, figuratively, if not literally, exposing their backsides for a group laugh. And it shone a particularly resonant light on how such behaviour could stifle a spirit and produce feelings of isolation and frustration.
But when it was over, and I’d recovered from the belly laughs, it was the tale of Tim and Dawn — how she had given him the imagination and gumption to have bigger dreams, and how that had inspired him to fight for her — which stayed longest with me.
There’s a similar love story at the heart of Cemetery Junction, but into the mix is also thrown the cruel and depressing reality of many women’s lives in the early seventies, the ones who had already become wives and mothers before the sexual revolution hit the UK suburbs.
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Gervais and Merchant have done a clever thing — they’ve taken recognisable actresses whom we know can be gutsy, fierce, vivacious and glamourous, and given them power-sapping make-unders.
Emily Mortimer and Julia Davis both have grey pallors, heavy eyes, turkey necks and sloped shoulders. They also have tough, repressive lives dutifully serving husbands who barely notice them.
As Mrs Kendrick, Mortimer has an especially unrewarding existence as the invisible servant of her cold, mercenary, rich husband.
She spends her life making unacknowledged cups of tea for Mr Kendrick or attending functions on his arm, wearing expensive, sexless dresses which bind her from knee to neck like an overstuffed mummy (the Egyptian kind).
But although defeated, it is she who urges her energetic, dreamy young daughter to escape the same fate. Society is changing, and she’s damned if her daughter won’t benefit. In a different time with different options, Mrs Kendrick could almost be as beautiful and successful as Emily Mortimer.
For over 20 years women have been asking whether being told we could ‘have it all’ has left a generation of us riddled with identity and confidence crises.
It’s certainly true that we continue to grapple with the question of what makes us happy. But Cemetery Junction left me feeling eternally grateful to those women who fought, before I was born, for their right to make their own mistakes.
The chances of a woman with ideas, ambition and personality being left to fester and grey at home have dwindled to almost nothing, and for that, I’m willing to endure the stress of too much freedom.