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SAN SEBASTIÁN 2022 Competition

Review: Great Yarmouth: Provisional Figures

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- Marco Martins crafts an atmospheric and grim portrait of a woman who both helps and exploits Portuguese workers in a depressing English seaside town

Review: Great Yarmouth: Provisional Figures
Beatriz Batarda in Great Yarmouth: Provisional Figures

Although on-screen text sets the scene for Great Yarmouth: Provisional Figures [+see also:
trailer
interview: Marco Martins
film profile
]
firmly in reality — late 2019 in the English seaside town of Great Yarmouth, to be exact — what follows is miles away from the social-realist approach usually employed to address British life. The film, premiering in competition at the San Sebastián International Film Festival, is a more atmospheric and heady offering, firmly aligned with the perspective of a woman who, for her own survival, casts a shifting, fitful and evanescent gaze at this world.

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Beatriz Batarda plays Tânia, “the mother of the Portuguese”, a woman who organises the work, transport and accommodation for poor Portuguese workers who come to this utterly grim town to work in the local turkey factory. Director Marco Martins shows us that reality: the early wake-up times, the run-down buildings holding three people to a room, the blood trickling down the walls of the slaughterhouse. These are striking, confrontational images, but Tânia and the film itself are somewhat detached from them already. With earphones on, as she drives around and greets the workers, Tânia is listening to English lessons, specifically focused on phrases useful in the context of hospitality. She repeats phrases such as, “We can provide many many workers,” “good amenities,” and “a bedroom with a sea view” with such frequency that they come to sound more like mantras or manifestations than anything else. She dreams of refurbishing an old hotel and welcoming elderly tourists there, with evenings of bingo and line dancing. Tânia works hard, and her responsibilities are enormous — the way she drifts through this hard world holding on to that dream, repeating the welcoming words she hopes to need one day, is what allows her to survive. Martins and cinematographer João Ribeiro emphasise throughout the grime and dirt of the rooms in which the workers sleep, the green hue of the wallpaper, the orange and brown shades of the beds and furniture, the darkness that engulfs them all. A repetitive droning sound, like waves of malaise or acid reflux, is an unnerving constant; it looks and feels like a nightmare.

What is our saving grace here? Another film could have conceived of its lead protagonist as a cold, calculating person resigned to the ways of the world, without remorse about the unfair treatment of the workers under her care. Tânia isn’t like that. She tries, in her own, limited way, to help those who cannot cope. Of course, she can never do enough, and ultimately fails to protect a man who has locked himself up in his room ever since he hurt his hand in the “deboning” section of the factory. Retribution from angry debt collectors is swift and merciless. Tânia, who has a business to run and a dream to chase, gets a strange man from the local marshes to get rid of the body.

Batarda looks positively pained in the role of a woman torn and desperate, reduced by circumstances to living in a reality she can barely stand to face. Her inner turmoil is hard to watch, and only the very dim glimmer of her latent humanity gives us something to hold onto. When, one day, a new worker arrives with his wife, Tânia immediately notices him; when she learns he is the brother of the dead worker, she cannot get him out of her mind. This sort-of romance offers both Tânia and the audience a welcome break from her relentlessly sad everyday life, sending her further into a fantasy, but it also makes an already stressful film almost nerve-wrackingly tense. What good could possibly come of this? Great Yarmouth: Provisional Figures is a refreshingly stylised and frank look at a little-known side-effect of modern-day capitalism, and its humanistic perspective on some of the people caught in its gears a salve on a painful and profoundly depressing world. But its ultimately hopeless and tragic view does make it rather predictable, and turns what could have been a truly moving and rewarding experience into something closer to an interesting formal exercise.

Great Yarmouth: Provisional Figures was produced by Uma Pedra no Sapato, Vende-se Filmes, Les Films de l'Après-midi and Damned Films.

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