Reviewed at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.
Sassy, slick, slight and speedy, Stephen Frears’ “Tamara Drewe” explores the same territory as Woody Allen’s similarly out-of-competition “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” — the heart is capricious, and fate is cruel — while skewering both urban pretentions and rural rumor-mongering.
Frears’ adaptation of Posy Simmonds’ highbrow graphic novel kicks off when a writer’s retreat in Dorset is disrupted by the return of the title character (Gemma Arterton) who’s come back from London a newly minted celebrity (with a newly purchased nose) to spiff up and sell the family estate.
Tamara’s just across the fields from the sprawling grounds where best-selling thriller author Nicolas Hardiment (Roger Allam) and his dutiful wife Beth (Tamsin Greig) operate a writer’s retreat, with his infidelities as the simmering subtext to her efforts to make the perfect country estate. Tamara’s ex Andy (Luke Evans) is the Hardiment’s handyman; American academic Glen (Bill Camp) is churning away on his book on Hardy. Local teens Jody (Jessica Barden) and Casey (Charlotte Christie) welcome Tamara’s arrival as a new element in the sleepy town of Ewedown, even as her romance with indie drummer heartthrob Ben (Dominic Cooper) makes Tamara an object of envy and contempt.
Posy Simmonds’ original comic strip (which ran in the books section of the Guardian in the U.K. as a soapy, satirical riff on Thomas Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd”) is nicely-served by Moira Buffini’s screenplay, which ups the level of vigorous venality as characters willfully and wickedly misbehave.
When her car is egged by Jody and Casey, Beth is more sympathetic than angry: “They’re just bored.” It’s a throwaway line, but it explains much of the motivation for the characters in “Tamara Drewe” — all the private affairs and public embarrassments spring from people lacking restraint not having anything better to do, and small sins set off large recriminations in the final act.
Frears juggles the plot’s elements with a light but firm touch, as we cycle through the seasons and the characters hop from bed to bed. Arterton’s Drewe is a calculated, charismatic careerist (Tamara works as a newspaper columnist, which is as ever movie shorthand for I am a likable narcissist with plenty to learn), but Arterton also conveys the old wounds behind Tamara’s new life and nose. The whole cast is superb, but standouts include Camp’s basically decent academic and Cooper’s overgrown adolescent rocker capable of rhyming “Tamara,” “tiara” and “spaghetti carbonara” as he serenades his new love.
While some of the Dorset-accented slang is tricky to follow, the film mostly speaks in the universal languages of regret, remorse, foolishness and failure. “Tamara Drewe” concludes with some lives changed and some lives ended, the fates dispensing punishments and pleasures seemingly at random.
The film could be seen as part of Frears’ long track record with speedy social satire, from “Dangerous Liasons” to “High Fidelity;” it also fits in with his observations of English social mores like “My Beautiful Laundrette” and “The Queen.” “Tamara Drewe” isn’t Frears’ best film, but it’s decidedly his — a very British movie built on universal truths, and a human comedy that stays humane.
“Tamara Drewe” will be released by Sony Pictures Classics later this year.
[Photos: “Tamara Drewe,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2010]