Directed by: Stephen Frears (The Queen)
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Roger Allam, Bill Camp, Dominic Cooper, Luke Evans, Tamsin Greig
Tamara Drewe, the cheeky graphic-novel variation on Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd by Posy Simmonds, has been transformed into a just-as-cheeky—or more so—film by Stephen Frears. In slightly less than two hours, Frears and screenwriter Moira Buffini skewer pompous academics, popular authors, pop stars, the British bourgeoisie, smolderingly gorgeous farmhands, the cult of physical beauty, oversexed teenage girls and even the glories of the English countryside. And they do it with deadly precision, good humor and even a certain amount of affection for their often ridiculous targets.
Tamara Drewe isn’t so much about Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton, Pirate Radio) as it is about the effect Tamara Drewe has on others, especially her sleepy little hometown, which remembers her as a somewhat rabbity girl with a very large and unfortunate nose. Returning to town to sell her late mother’s house—and armed with a great deal of self-possession and a surgically streamlined schnoz—she finds she is suddenly an object of great interest to the local—and imported—men, and an object of some distaste to the women. (“I hope those shorts don’t give her thrush,” one female character cattily remarks of Tamara’s indelicately brief and extremely tight cut-off jeans.)
Tamara knows what she’s got and—after a childhood of being taunted about her looks—she’s neither afraid to use it nor is she above flaunting it. However, she’s perfectly aware that her new appearance is not without its downside, since in her newly pretty form, she finds it far more difficult to be taken seriously as a newspaper journalist. It’s an exchange she seems perfectly happy to have made, especially on her home turf where she is more than pleased to be able to torment the local celebrity—popular novelist Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam, The Queen), who rejected her—and the lusty farmhand—hunky Andy Cobb (Luke Evans, Clash of the Titans), who didn’t mind casual sex in the woodshed, but wouldn’t acknowledge Tamara publicly.
Nicholas and his much put-upon wife, Beth (Brit TV actress Tamsin Greig), run a kind of literary retreat where he writes his spy novels—when he isn’t cheating on his wife—and she distracts herself with seemingly nonstop baking and prize chickens. At the time of Tamara’s return, their primary guest is an uptight American academic, Glen McCreavy (Bill Camp, Public Enemies), who is working on a biography of Thomas Hardy. Glen’s not a bad sort, even if he is on the stuffy side and prone to saying things like, “My books aren’t really written to sell.” He’s both envious and contemptuous of Nicholas’ popular success. Nicholas is merely contemptuous of him.
Andy works for the Hardiments as a handyman, while dreaming of getting back his ancestral home—which just happens to be the house Tamara has come to dispose of. He also serves as a sympathetic listener to Beth’s complaints about Nicholas’ painfully obvious philandering. It’s obvious that Andy is perfectly willing to offer more than sympathy—I suppose because it goes with the territory of being a lusty farmhand. He is, however, more than susceptible to Tamara’s new charms and willing to help get the house ready for sale—and anything else that might happen.
All of this is complicated when Tamara goes to interview pop-star drummer Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper, An Education), lands him on the rebound from his cheating girlfriend—and bandmate—and naturally brings him (and his inseparable dog) home with her. Ben is very full of himself and more than a little of a jerk, telling Tamara that everything she has ever heard about drummers is false—only to immediately prove that it isn’t. Regardless, a relationship arises between them, much to the chagrin of all the other men and the pair of sexually precocious teens, Jody (Brit TV actress Jessica Barden) and Casey (newcomer Charlotte Christie), who oversee all local proceedings. Jody, in particular, is incensed because she has got a terrific crush on Ben (“He’s not just a drummer. He writes the songs, too. It’s his band.”).
This then is the situation in lovely, picturesque—and apparently oversexed—rural England where most of Tamara Drewe takes place, and a situation rich in comedic possibilities it is. And those possibilities are fully explored and exploited with terrific style. Much happens—up to and including a cattle stampede—and it’s all observed with keen wit and a wicked sense of humor that’s never utterly cruel, since it’s impossible not to conclude that Frears can’t help but like these absurd characters and the ridiculous ways they comport themselves. Be sure to stick around for Ben’s final song—further proof that everything you’ve heard about drummers really is true. Rated R for language and some sexuality.