The human and natural worlds are uneasy bedfellows in Marco Martins’ GREAT YARMOUTH, a gritty testament to migrant workers in rural England. Months before Brexit, in late 2019, Great Yarmouth is a seaside town just past its prime – a town primarily for English holidaymakers, especially young families and pensioners.
Just off these streets, Portuguese immigrant Tanya (Beatriz Batarda) runs a house for Portuguese workers (who come to fill abattoir jobs that no English worker wants). Day in and day out, they slaughter, pluck, debone, and trim truckfuls of turkeys. Tanya lives with her business partner and an English family in town, returning to her overcrowded business to extort rent. She listens to English on tape, hoping to run her own hotel for English guests someday. After an accident befalls one of her tenants and his brother turns up among the new pre-Christmas workers, the life she has carefully constructed is poised for a reckoning.
At first glance, Tanya barely seems a complicated protagonist, rather an out-and-out exploiter of a community she escaped (how is not specified). But Batarda’s searing performance captures her hopes, dreams, and cares under her steely exterior. She holds and comforts a pregnant and distressed worker before telling a new cohort they must pay for their bus fare before they see a single pence of earnings. She is by far the most fully rounded character of those that move through Martins’ tale, and the story unfolds through her eyes. As she learns more about her former tenant’s charming brother, some flattened motives become her miscalculations and misunderstandings rather than a fault of narration.
“Plunging faces into shadows and rooms into darkness, the sparing use of bright, yellow light becomes jarring and unearthly – in a way, the equal of the ghostly marshes surrounding Great Yarmouth, into which Tanya escapes occasionally.”
Martins creates a story from real-life occurrences in Great Yarmouth, but his characters and exact events are fiction. Plunging faces into shadows and rooms into darkness, the sparing use of bright, yellow light becomes jarring and unearthly – in a way, the equal of the ghostly marshes surrounding Great Yarmouth, into which Tanya escapes occasionally. Sometimes her purposes are shadowy; sometimes, they are just to meet a friend who observes and lovingly draws the local avian life. These lively, dark birds among the reeds are shown in stark contrast to the fattened, white turkeys on their chrome trucks. The metaphor of exploitation and freedom is perhaps slightly forced but effective nonetheless.
The film’s subtitle, ‘Provisional Figures’, is a nod to the UK Government terminology for migrants whose status is uncertain or unknown. Brexit never happens during GREAT YARMOUTH, and the question of what happens to these characters after Christmas – a period many hope to stay for – is never answered. Narratively, this conclusion is unnecessary – the cycle of poverty and uncertainty has no easy answer. But GREAT YARMOUTH rushes Tanya’s comeuppance slightly too neatly and swiftly, considering the social realist bent of the film up to the final quarter. However, Martins’ Norfolk retains some of the county’s folk horror sensibilities; the forced propulsion does not preclude its haunting staying power once credits roll.