Due to their ability to freely cross borders, birds are an oft-used symbol in the migrant rights movement. Set in a Norfolk turkey abattoir in the months leading up to Christmas, Marco Martins’ Great Yarmouth takes this symbol of hope and inverts it. Housed in battery farm-like conditions and with their passports confiscated, the Portuguese migrant workers in Martins’ film have more in common with the doomed turkeys they’re being (barely) paid to process. It’s not the most subtle metaphor, but it’s an effective one.
Great Yarmouth follows Tânia (Martins regular Beatriz Batarda), a former abattoir worker who’s clawed her way up to a role supervising the Portuguese workforce. She considers herself a mother figure to the workers, though the superficial and one-sided nature of this relationship reveals itself as the film progresses. She chaperones them to and from their squalid hotel accommodation, takes exorbitant rent and transport costs out of their measly wages, and ‘safeguards’ their passports. In short, she oversees their exploitation. Tânia’s self-preservation and ambition battle with her guilt and duty of care, and Batarda’s performance of a character teetering on this moral see-saw is riveting.
When not being demonised, migrants are often dehumanised with benevolent stereotypes that leave those who deviate to fall through the cracks. Tânia’s complicity in the suffering of her fellow Portuguese allows for a nuance devoid from common tropes like the hard worker or the helpless victim. But it’s also clear that Tânia is a small cog in a rotten system, and that those with more power feign ignorance of the dirty work she carries out. The British managers Tânia reports to make half-hearted inquiries about the workers’ conditions, only to complain about them asking for breaks.
Tânia is married to Englishman Richie, a gambling addict who owns the hotels where the workers are accommodated. Kris Hitchen is skin-crawling as Richie and unrecognisable from his breakout role in Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You. The other men in Tânia’s orbit are her lovers Raúl and Carlos. Carlos takes a job in the abattoir to track down his brother Cardoso, a worker who accrues debt after suffering an injury at the deboning station.
Great Yarmouth is a relentlessly bleak watch from its plot to its visual language. Coloured in murky greens and blues, the neon lights of Great Yarmouth’s promenade strain against the gloom that cinematographer João Ribeiro submerges us in. Scenes of the turkeys being processed, filmed coolly and mechanically, are not for the faint-hearted.
In the film’s third chapter, Richie humiliates Raúl in a sadistic turn reminiscent of scenes from Lars von Trier and Yorgos Lanthimos films. Ben Sharrock’s Limbo, which followed asylum-seeking migrants on a Scottish island, offset its at times heavy subject matter with wickedly dark humour and romantic Hebridean scenery. Great Yarmouth offers no such relief, resulting in a punishing two hours that leaves you feeling bereft, grimy, and furious about the way this invisible workforce is treated.
A rare venture outside his native Portugal, Martins’ Great Yarmouth shines a light on so-called ‘economic migrants’ and the shadow economies they can find themselves working in. It’s a desolate film that condemns the UK government, whose anti-migrant politics and labour laws leave foreign workers vulnerable to exploitation in the first place.