San Sebastian 2022 review: Great Yarmouth: Provisional Figures (Marco Martins)

Great Yarmouth: Provisional Figures is an astonishing piece of cinema that pushes boundaries and provokes thought, and shows us a very different side of the life we all seem to think we understand in one way or another.”

Marco Martins is a renegade of contemporary Portuguese cinema – his films are challenging, provocative, and deeply meaningful, and usually look at the trials and tribulations of those either residing within his native country, or those who have drifted to other parts of the world, focusing on the experiences of those in the Lusophone diaspora. His most recent directorial effort is Great Yarmouth: Provisional Figures, which is one of his most challenging projects to date – a dark, twisted deconstruction of the immigrant experience set in a formerly prosperous part of Britain that has now become one of its most decrepit, a fact that many blame on the influx of migrants who descend on Yarmouth which has lost its status as a pristine resort town. Complex, harrowing and deeply disturbing, but also effortlessly fascinating in how it presents certain ideas through an ambitious set of conversations, Great Yarmouth: Provisional Figures is one of the most haunting depictions of the immigrant crisis we have yet to encounter and a film that is relentless in its bold assertions, to the point of being extraordinarily frightening in how it depicts those who will go to any lengths to not only make a life for themselves, but simply survive in a challenging world.

Social realism has been an evergreen theme in films for about as long as they have been made, with many directors choosing to create very intimate tales of everyday life that use simple stories and unfurnished techniques to present an authentic depiction of a particular social or cultural milieu. Martins has built his career around this idea, and Great Yarmouth: Provisional Figures contains some of his most audacious conversations. There is a bleakness that encompasses this film, creating a situation where the characters, much like their surroundings, are desolate and colourless. This is a sharp contrast to the prologue, which boldly states how this region used to be populated by tourists who luxuriated in the beauty and tranquillity of the English coast. This is a film built on conflict, both in terms of the psychological impact of these circumstances, and of the cultural challenges that the people at the heart of the story face when venturing into these harsh, unforgiving conditions which remain their only hope to support themselves. Martins plays on the contradictions between the reputation of the region and the reality of those who find themselves in this place – regardless of whether their stay is temporary or permanent – leading to a lot of unsettling conflicts that are explored in great detail throughout the film.

As one of the more pressing issues of the modern era, the immigrant crisis has been front and centre in countless films over the last couple of decades. This has meant that there has been a broad divergence between those that take a more conventional approach to exploring the subject, and others who are slightly more unorthodox. Great Yarmouth: Provisional Figures fits firmly in the latter category, being as much about the immigrant experience as it is about the psychological impact of displacement. The characters to whom we are introduced range in age and specific background, but they share the quality of being “pork and cheeses”, the dehumanizing epithet that the locals have bestowed on the Portuguese population, viewing them as sub-human and not worthy of the space which they inhabit, regardless of how small and squalid it may be. The film focuses on these characters negotiating their identity in this hostile society, especially the character of Tat, played masterfully by Beatriz Batarda. She has risen from a degraded outsider to a functioning member of society, which makes her efforts to help her fellow immigrants all the more meaningful. We watch as these people navigate their surroundings, knowing that they are making their way through a part of the world where they are not only outsiders but entirely unwelcome, causing them to question their own humanity, wondering about the sense of belonging that many immigrants are promised in supposed sanctuaries.

The immigrant experience explored in Great Yarmouth: Provisional Figures is one that is slightly different – these people left Portugal not because of war or social unrest, but rather as a means to find a better life for themselves, rising out of the working-class poverty they endured back home. However, this does not invalidate the perspective being offered by Martins throughout this film, which uses a range of characters to represent the testimonials of real Portuguese immigrants in Britain, discussing their means of negotiating their identity in a hostile society, each life being a fragment of a deeper story. It is a film about identity and how one comes to terms with the feeling of being an outsider, which is the foundation for this terrifying glimpse into the darker side of the experiences of immigrants. The director crafts a deeply unsettling character study that is fuelled by both social and psychological complexity, portraying the plight of the invisible majority, the hardworking people who are simply trying to survive and make a living, but are continuously challenged to defend their primordial existence. It leads to a harrowing depiction of the challenges that can test these people both psychologically and physically, and leads them to reconsider their entire purpose. Not an easy film, but one that is vitally important from both an artistic and socio-cultural level, Great Yarmouth: Provisional Figures is an astonishing piece of cinema that pushes boundaries and provokes thought, and shows us a very different side of the life we all seem to think we understand in one way or another.