An authentic insight into migrant workers in Britain, the feature drama Great Yarmouth: Provisional Figures is an engrossing work that premiered in the San Sebastian Film Festival competition. Directed by Marco Martins (Alice), who co-writes with Ricardo Adolfo, it follows the tough life of Tânia (a superb Beatriz Batarda), who supervises her fellow Portuguese workers in the dilapidated seaside town of Great Yarmouth. Based on interviews with many migrants, it’s a hard-hitting look at working conditions and the moral compromises made by desperate people.
Set over several months in late 2019, before Brexit, it sees Tânia woken up by a bird that’s flown into her modest home. Woozily opening a window to set it free, she prepares for her day in a turkey factory, where the captive poultry have no such luck. It’s shocking to see the way the birds are treated in this cramped abattoir, and it’s clearly a metaphor for the workers, who are cooped up in grotty hotel rooms and leave their shifts covered with blood and feces.
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It’s a heavily signaled but compelling comparison, and you get the feeling that Tânia would love to set them all free. Instead, she hardens her face and her heart to keep the workers at their stations, taking their passports and charging them for their miserable digs.
Having married an idiotic English hotel owner, Richard (Sorry We Missed You’s Kris Hitchen), Tânia has worked her way up, and is saving up ill gotten gains with dreams of a better life. She shares her plans for a refurbished hotel with sometime lover Raúl (Romeu Runa), and their hopes lead to some of the film’s more upbeat scenes. Gazing through the window of a successful hotel, they smile at elderly women line dancing, perhaps amused but also inspired by the possibilities of catering to British pensioners.
Language is a strong currency, so determined Tânia listens to English learning audio whenever she has a chance. Escape is at the forefront of her mind – but she’s also a sexual and romantic person, and all of her liaisons lead to various complications. Raúl, meantime, is an increasingly tragic figure, humiliated by a drunken Richard, who even encourages him to do turkey impressions for the assembled Brits at home. Christmas is coming, but there is nothing festive about this film.
There are incidental moments when the English dialogue feels a bit forced, and a poetic bookend that might have worked better when this was a stage play. But these are small points.
Great Yarmouth: Provisional Figures is a tough but riveting watch, artfully lensed by DP João Ribeiro and beautifully performed by Batarda, whose character is always fascinating, whether she’s dealing with a sick worker or singing Beverly Craven’s “Promise Me” in a karaoke/seduction scene. That song is one of many things that will stay in your head long after viewing.
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