Gemma Arterton, Dominic Cooper, Luke Evans, Bill Camp, Roger Allam, Tamsin Grieg DIRECTED BY
Stephen Frears SCREENPLAY
Moira Buffini, Posy Simmonds MPAA RATING
Rated R RUNNING TIME
111 Mins. DISTRIBUTED BY
For well over 40 years, British director Stephen Frears has been making bold and satisfying cinema ranging from the early Daniel Day Lewis vehicle My Beautiful Laundrette to the more recent Oscar nominee The Queen. With Tamara Drewe, the 69-year-old director relaxes a bit and goes from bold to breezy with this lightly humorous updating of Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd.
The film stars Gemma Arterton, who has already proven herself to be quite beautiful in such films as Disney's Prince of Persia and the recent Clash of the Titans remake. Here, however, Arterton ups her cinematic value considerably as the lead character, a woman who returns to her small English village a heck of a lot more beautiful than when she left... and she knows it. Drewe has returned to fix up the family home she's inherited in order to sell it, but quickly finds herself the center of attention amongst a variety of men including Andy (Luke Evans), who'd dumped her prior to her departure for the big city and local literary celeb Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam), who'd rejected her advances when she was barely a young woman.
It's amazing how a pair of cut-off jeans and a nose job can change a guy's, er, mind.
While Tamara Drewe is loosely patterned after Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd, it's more concretely based upon a Posy Simmonds' graphic novel and has been adapted for the screen by Moira Buffini in a way that is kinder and gentler than is Simmonds' original work. If it feels like these characters are darker and, perhaps, edgier than one normally finds in a romantic comedy, well that's the original design of the story and one could easily argue that the film might've been even more successful had Buffini not softened the edges and allowed Frears the freedom to go rip-roaring into a darkly comical romantic flick.
Much of the action here centers around a writer's retreat owned by Hardiment and his long-suffering wife Beth (Tamsin Grieg), who is painfully aware of her charming husband's dalliances but seemingly loves the life they've created and manages to look past his cheating ways by distracting herself with assisting his career, running the retreat and entertaining their various guests, most notably an American writer working on a Hardy biography, Glen McCreavy (Bill Camp). Beth has just looked past yet another dalliance when Tamara returns to the village, first garnering the attention of Andy and then, finally, the lead singer of a rock band she's been sent to interview, Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper), who himself is secretly admired from afar by village teens Casey (Charlotte Christie) and Jody (Jessica Barden).
One can't help but wish that Frears had upped the pace a bit on Tamara Drewe, a film that has the potential to be quite the madcap romantic comedy if Frears ever moved the film beyond first gear. It's as if Frears became infected by the slower paced life of the village, which would work just fine for a gentle, easygoing romantic comedy. However, in this case there are so many characters and storylines going on that one wishes for a bit more weaving and intertwining of the stories. A bit of a faster pace would have also upped the intensity of the film's darker edges, but instead the slower pace simply stresses that generally speaking the only character here who is genuinely sympathetic is that of Beth, who is also arguably the film's most interesting character and masterfully brought to life by the sweet, vulnerable and funny Tamsin Grieg.
Suffice it to say that Tamara will find herself taking full advantage of her newfound popularity, flirtatiously coaxing into a wealth of home renovations, winning the heart or at least the imagination of Ben and, finally, convincing Nicholas Hardiment that she really is worthy of his time. Arterton has enchanted audiences for awhile now, mostly courtesy of her rather stunning looks. Here, however, Arterton puts her talent on full display and there's quite a bit more there than one might imagine. Arterton's Tamara Drewe is beautiful, intelligent, cunning, manipulative, a little bit cruel and, yes, just a wee bit stupid.
In addition to Grieg's consistent scene-stealing appearances, Roger Allam breaks away from the British stage long enough to leave a lasting impression here as a writer who has spent so much time writing characters that he himself has become one. The mischievous teens played by Charlotte Christie and Jessica Barden could almost be spun off into a bit of a horror flick, their mischief bordering on psychosis at times. Dominic Cooper avoids easy stereotypes, bringing a wealth of admittedly twisted humanity to a good ole' fashioned rock singer who could've easily been a cartoon caricature.
It's a sad fact that all too often American audiences avoid these distinctly British comedies, comedies with a rather strong Euro style and that avoid softening the British dialect simply to win a few more box-office bucks. Just about everything about Tamara Drewe screams out British comedy, from its snappy and witty dialogue to its rustic and crusty visual style. The point would be that Tamara Drewe is worth stepping outside of your comfort zone and taking a gander at delightfully constructed characters, a spot-on ensemble cast and a breezy, entertaining film from Stephen Frears.