It’s always a pleasure to see a new Stephen Frears movie, and Tamara Drewe is no exception; it may be more of a pleasure than most. It’s a bright (in both senses of the word), bouncy and sly comedy of rural English manners, marred only (for American ears) by the provincial accents of some of the characters. But those accents serve to fix the movie firmly in its setting; missing a few words here and there is a small price to pay.
Moira Buffini’s screenplay is based on the comic strip (later a graphic novel) by Posy Simmonds. In turn, Simmonds took her inspiration, loosely but cleverly, from Thomas Hardy’s novel Far From the Madding Crowd, about the beautiful Bathsheba Everdene and her effect on the men in her life. (Simmonds is no stranger to such adaptation; another graphic novel is the self-explanatory Gemma Bovery.)
The Bathsheba of Tamara Drewe is Tamara herself (Gemma Arterton), who returns to her home in the English countryside after 10 years (and a nose job) looking more beautiful than any of the locals can remember.
Among these are handyman Andy Cobb (Luke Evans). Tamara’s house was Andy’s ancestral home before his family fell on hard times and had to sell, and Andy and Tamara had a fling as teenagers before she moved away to seek her fortune in London.
Then there’s Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam), a famous crime novelist who runs Stonefield Farm, a sort of bed and breakfast that serves as a retreat for aspiring writers. Well, actually, Nicholas only holds court there; the farm is really run by Beth (Tamsin Greig), his long-suffering wife and muse. Unfortunately, Nicholas has a tendency to go afield for his muses; these episodes always end with him weeping contritely on Beth’s shoulder, apologizing for what a bastard he is, and Beth forgiving him. His roving eye and her forgiveness will come back to bite them both now that Tamara’s back in the village.
One of the guests at Stonefield is Glen McCreavy (Bill Camp), an American professor writing a treatise on Thomas Hardy (an odd coincidence) and struggling to divest his style of its academic dullness; Beth becomes his editor and adviser—much as she was for Nicholas before he started screwing around.
Finally, there are Jody (Jessica Barden) and Casey (Charlotte Christie), two local teenagers literally bored silly and looking for mischief. At first they content themselves with lurking behind a stone fence and chucking eggs at passing cars. But when Tamara becomes engaged to Jody’s schoolgirl crush, rock drummer Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper), Jody’s harmless pranks turn malicious, dragging a reluctant Casey along for a ride that spirals swiftly out of their control and beyond their comprehension.
Those are the ingredients of Posy Simmonds’ Hardy-esque stew, spiced with a wryness that steers us into amusement rather than the sturm und drang tragedy that was Hardy’s stock in trade. It’s not that tragedy—or at least death—is a stranger here, but it comes with a kind of clumsy absurdity that underscores a sardonic view of what fools these mortals be. There’s a sense in the story that whether or not we like all the details, the universe is still unfolding more or less as it should.
Tamara Drewe has a solid story (from Simmonds) and a sprightly script (Buffini), and most of all, it has Stephen Frears, one of the most adventurous and exhilarating directors working in movies today. It’s not that he’s incapable of making a bad movie (Mary Reilly, anyone?), but he almost never does. Dangerous Liaisons, The Snapper, The Grifters, High Fidelity, The Queen—Frears has been responsible for a lot of high-end enjoyment for moviegoers over the last 20 years.
For Tamara Drewe, he assembles a cast of British TV pros largely unfamiliar to Americans (at least, those who don’t get BBC America), and the result is an ensemble that gives the whole movie a bracing, open-air freshness. It’s easy to imagine, say, Woody Allen making a similar movie (in fact, with A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, he did) and populating it with a load of stock-company favorites that give the whole thing a been-here-seen-this inevitability.
Take a fling at Tamara Drewe; it’s as invigorating as a year in the airy, earthy English country.