Gemma Arterton is Tamara Drewe

For most of his adaptation of Posy Simmonds’ comic Tamara Drewe, Stephen Frears has created a leisurely, golden-hued, spry and lightly humorous alternative universe in the English countryside. It’s the sort of pastoral place among chickens and cows hopeful writers might gather for inspiration (or retreat from their failures) and that’s exactly what they do in this story. They’re a soft and a little bit stuffy lot – the kind who mostly write (or talk about writing) rather than do – and they’ve gathered at a writer’s retreat to eat scones and biscuits, talk about themselves, work through their various writers’ insecurities and fawn at the feet of Nicholas Hardiment, a pompous semi-hack who has managed popular success with a string of mysteries thanks in no small part to his wife Beth, the retreat’s proprietor.

They’d all be unbearable if they weren’t so harmless, but Frears delights in quietly puncturing them with that dry, self-effacing and gentle cynicism the English are so good at. The ending however is another story and perhaps another movie entirely. Tamara Drewe builds to a seriously tragic crescendo that is either deeply satisfying in a blackly comic way or entirely off-putting, depending on how you feel about everything that came before.

The agent of upset in this little idyll is the title character Tamara Drewe. She was once a homely schoolgirl who returns to her rural homestead with a brand new nose, a swell job at a London paper, a rock star boyfriend and a pair of eyebrow-raising short shorts. She gets the attention of not only her former flame Andy, but also the blowhard Nicholas whom Tamara once had a girlhood crush on. There is also Glen, the soft American intellectual with writer’s block and a budding attraction to Beth plus Jody and Casey, a couple of bored local schoolgirls who smoke cigarettes and look disdainfully on the world around them as they plot the downfall of Tamara, believing her to be the only obstacle between them and her sexy boyfriend Ben.

Yes, chaos ensues, but in the end the most interesting character in the story turns out not to be Tamara, but Beth, the put-upon wife. Brit TV familiar Tamsin Greig plays her as kind of an emotional punching bag who quietly absorbs whatever psychological blows Nicholas carelessly aims her way. At first she seems clueless, and then willfully ignorant until finally she’s forced to face the full on reality of her husband’s philandering. What’s more, it’s clear she’s not only the inspiration behind her husband’s success, but also a fair measure of the talent. She’s the perfect editor: someone with the mind of a writer but lacking the enormous ego it takes to put pen to paper in her own name. Beth is mousy, but sharp and she’s strong when it really counts so that she always holds your sympathy.

It is Beth who is central to the unexpectedly dark turns the story takes near the end and it makes them all the more unsettling and potentially unwelcome. It’s a little unfair to wrap an audience in a breezy, almost inconsequential little Shakespearean comedy only to finally run them over with sudden tragedy. It’s difficult to say whether Frears intended this as a kind of sucker punch or if he simply failed to navigate the graphic novel’s shift in tone. Either way, it’s jarring and not altogether satisfying.

Whatever you think of the ending, the rest of the cast besides Greig are all terrific. Gemma Arterton nicely plays the title character whose nose job has done nothing to cover up some serious character defects. The problem with Tamara is that she loses your sympathy half way through the film, but I think this is by design. Tamara is the catalyst, but not ultimately the story’s hero and the shifting in sympathies dovetails for better or for worse with the film’s change in tone.

Bill Camp’s character Glen could easily be more pathetic than likable, but there’s a gentleness and sincerity to this dopey American. Roger Allam meanwhile adds a note of dignity to the egotistical Nicholas as though the cheating is a cover for the knowledge he’s not the writer he could be or wants to be. Luke Evans is convincing as the handsome rustic Andy and he’s a good foil for Dominic Cooper’s brash and spoiled rock star Ben.

Finally and perhaps best of all are Jessica Barden and Charlotte Christie as schoolgirls Jody and Casey. There’s something about European teen (and younger) actors who lack the annoying precociousness of their American counterparts. They’re natural and they act like actual teens instead of clowns or angsty adults in teen bodies. What’s more, Barden and Christie get the humor of their characters without seeming like they get it and they end up injecting the film with a much-needed punk energy. Frears and Tamara Drewe’s screenwriter Moira Buffini clearly realize they’re onto something fun with these two characters because the roles have been greatly expanded from the part they played in the original comic.

What in the end then to make of Tamara Drewe?. Is it a lightly entertaining British rural comedy that loses its way or is it intended all along as a more darkly comic satire of same? The latter interpretation seems most likely, but for all it gets right, Tamara Drewe doesn’t quite add up either way. Still, it amounts to enough to make it well worth seeing.

Tamara Drewe. UK 2010. Directed by Stephen Frears. Screenplay by Moira Buffini from the comic by Posy Simmonds. Cinematography by Ben Davis. Music score composed by Alexandre Desplat. Edited by Mick Audsley. Starring Gemma Arterton, Tamsin Greig, Roger Allam, Bill Camp, Dominic Cooper, Luke Evans, Charlotte Christie and Jessica Barden. 1 hour 47 minutes. MPAA rated R for language and some sexuality. 3 stars (out of 5)

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