If we look back at the very birth of cinema, the trend of audiences enjoying the sight of themselves (or people like themselves) and their local areas on-screen is evident. With their short film La sortie des usines Lumière, the Lumière brothers famously showed workers leaving their factory gates in Lyon, and at the turn of the century Mitchell and Kenyon continued this in the north of Britain with their tours of actuality films. I have come to realise in recent years that although cinema audiences have changed in many ways since then, perhaps becoming more sophisticated in general, some things haven’t changed. We still get pleasure from seeing the familiar – be it on TV or at the cinema, in actuality, or in fiction. Why would we have local broadcasting if we just crave the exotic? Why would films made in Norfolk be popular with Norfolk audiences? As an employee at Cinema City in Norwich I can confirm that this popularity is often the case – sometimes defying the critical and commercial indifference that some Norfolk-set films are met with in the rest of the UK.
As a resident of Norwich for most of my life, and even as a film studies academic and professional, I confess to still getting a jolt of recognition and pleasure whenever I recognise people or places that I know on screen. I let out a little yelp when a resplendent Thor smashed his hammer into the ground of what is clearly the UEA campus in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and I loved seeing Eddie Redmayne and Romola Garai flounce around North Norfolk in Stephen Poliakoff’s Glorious 39.
Rarely, if ever, have I seen a film made in Norfolk that is explicit about its location and celebrates it. This does of course happen in the cinema for other locations. The prime example might be New York. From Woody Allen’s cool and monochrome Manhattan, to Carrie Bradshaw’s sexy city for the single girl, New York is most often portrayed as the nadir of Western metropolitan existence. But Norwich? It’s famous for the awkwardly parochial Alan Partridge and most of its screen outings might be seen as fleeting and inconsequential (Julie Christie visits Tombland in The Go Between, and Stardust disguised Elm Hill as an exotic market in the fantasy kingdom of Stormhold). And the Norfolk landscape? It’s usually not credited. Holkham beach was disguised as the new world at the end of Shakespeare in Love and when the Norfolk Broads appeared in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket they were doubling as Vietnam.
However, in recent months I have seen two new films that buck this trend and are filmed and firmly set in Norfolk. These are Guy Myhill’s The Goob (on release in May) and Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years (release date 28 August). Both filmmakers present a vision of life in the county which is in turns realistic and uncomfortably grim but also pastoral, peaceful and pleasant. The Goob features a teenage protagonist, ‘Goob’ Taylor (played by Dereham newcomer Liam Walpole), negotiating a bleak future working the fields of west Norfolk governed by his mother’s bullish boyfriend Gene Womack (portrayed by an intimidating Sean Harris). The filming was done over the long hot summer of 2013, and a lot of scenes appear to have been shot in the sunset ‘magic-hour’, giving the grim reality of Norfolk rural life a hazy nostalgic tone.
45 Years features Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay playing the very middle-class couple Kate and Geoff Mercer, who are in their advanced years and facing their 45th wedding anniversary. They live in retirement in a farmhouse in the Norfolk Broads and the grey skies and misty country lanes add to the feeling of foreboding that builds over the course of a week as their relationship disintegrates due to a slow reveal about Geoff’s past relationship.
Myhill and Haigh have both achieved naturalism and authenticity in their films – in the characters, their stories, and the settings. Myhill presents a rural working-class teenager coming-of-age, whereas Haigh successfully and succinctly portrays a couple realising their ‘coming-of-old-age’ and a discomfort with this and each-other. Something else that links both films is that they both benefitted from iFeatures, a production fund from national organisation Creative England. One of the objectives of this fund is to ‘support low budget films that capture a sense of place’. I hope this is just the beginning of a new era of investment and production in filmmaking in this hitherto rather neglected part of the country.
The films of Richard Curtis (namely Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill) may have put certain sections of London on the tourist trail, but I doubt that many will travel to Norwich and Norfolk to tread the paths of Goob and the Mercers. But The Goob and 45 Years have achieved more than that in my view. They’ve succeeded in finally providing a credible and admirable depiction of my homeland and its people. It might not always be pretty but I’m still proud to call it home.
By Anna Blagrove
Anna is a PhD Researcher in the Film, Television and Media Studies Department. Her thesis is an audience study of young cinema-goers and other research interests include Australian film and the work of Studio Ghibli. She is employed as Education Officer at Cinema City, programming learning provison and chairing special events such as filmmaker Q&As. She also works on the HLF funded Norfolk at the Pictures project.