Kick Up Your Heels, But Not too Far
Tamara Drewe provides smart, sexy tragicomedy of British manners
by Suzi Steffen
TAMARA DREWE Written by Moira Buffini from the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds. Directed by Stephen Frears. Cinematography, Ben Davis. Music, Alexandre Desplat. Starring Gemma Arterton, Dominic Cooper, Luke Evans. BBC Films, 2010. R. 111 minutes.
Comedy of manners, British rom-com, tragedy, acutely observed realist film — which is Tamara Drewe? All and then some, but the overwhelming feel of Stephen Frears’ prettily filmed flick settles mostly on surprised, sometimes outraged laughter, and wry, warm recognition of human failings. Tamara Drewe won’t win any best movie awards, but it’s thoughtfully enjoyable and more than worth a couple of hours at the Bijou.
The movie, directed by the man who’s brought us everything from My Beautiful Laundrette to Dirty Pretty Things to The Queen, mixes elements in a sprightly toss of a movie with a dark underbelly. Like Miss Marple, who finds the drear nastiness lurking in every rural heart, the movie demonstrates that English villages, picturesque as they may be — and cinematographer Ben Davis (Stardust, Kick-Ass) caresses the fields, the bees, the chickens and the innocent cows, with a loving and gentle light, even turning nasty winter rain into enchantingly romantic weather — contain the full range of human behavior, decent to gapingly bad. And when strangers come, or return, to town, the simmering stewpot of human interaction opens up new options for mistakes and the slight possibility of tenuous redemption.
The stranger returning to the town of Ewedown is a woman who roars into the Dorset hamlet in her Mini Cooper with plans to clean up and sell her recently deceased mother’s house. She’s the titular Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton, who played a Bond girl in Quantum of Solace and arm candy in The Prince of Persia and Clash of the Titans), a successful columnist and reporter who’s had a nose job and who — in a scene that feels a bit less realistic than the rest of the movie — sashays sexily into an afternoon party and sets in motion a cascade of events.
Tamara’s house once belonged to the family of Andy Cobb (Luke Evans, whose lovely, nude torso fills the opening shot of the film), and young Cobb once rejected young Tam and her admittedly huge schnoz, which we see in short, telling flashbacks.
Actual strangers to Ewedown arrive in the form of writers on retreat at Stonefield, an organic farm built up by highly successful crime novelist Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam) and his long-suffering amaneuensis, enabler, cook, farmer, editor and wife Beth (Tamsin Greig). Nicholas starts out insufferable and, though we see a bit of humanity in him, he mostly stays that way; Beth also remains insufferably good. Still, her efficiency, cheerfulness, kindness and ability to provide just what the writers on retreat need means she’s a muse for more than her philandering asshole of a husband.
One of the charmed writers is an American professor named Glen (Bill Camp), who’s also riveted by Tamara but who backs off quickly when Tam hooks up with indie-rock drummer Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper). Not to get too plotty, but Ben’s arrival in the Dorset village furthers the tale thanks to two 15-year-olds (Jessica Barden and Charlotte Christie) who read too many gossip rags and long to make life in Ewedown more exciting. Barden turns in a performance that perfectly depicts the cruelty, lust, desperation, formless anger and boredom of a teenager longing for more (“a croupier in Vegas”) and ruining several lives with her machinations.
The plot, altered a bit from the graphic novel, comes mostly from Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, and it’s a busy one. Yet the perfectly cast actors deal admirably with every challenge of the twisty story, skirting parody to arrive at the half-happy, half-tragic conclusion with depth and a wicked sense of humor.