Tamsin Greig, Charlotte Christie
- Rated R
- Buy the BD
All photos © Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed by Bob Westal
o give you an idea of just how terrific a filmmaker Stephen Frears is, I'd like to list a few of his movies, but I don't know where to start. Going as far back as his still oddly obscure 1984 breakthrough, "The Hit," to his Oscar-winning drama, "The Queen," he is the greatest living director no one writes much about. Semi-famed for his self-proclaimed complete lack of a style or, more accurately, for his ability to create a new and appropriate style to fit each screenplay regardless of genre, Stephen Frears' movies are united only by a subtle visual flair, actors allowed to be at their actory best, strong storytelling and enormous wit. Most British critics have praised his latest, and many of my American brothers and sisters may follow. I can't join the chorus this time, even if the ingredients are there for a perfectly swell little semi-tragic comedy.
Based on a graphic novel and weekly comic strip by veteran newspaper cartoonist and children's book author Posy Simmonds, "Tamara Drewe" is a more humorous update/riff on 19th century writer Thomas Hardy's 1874 novel, Far From the Madding Crowd. Set in a writer's retreat in a really gorgeous section of rural England, the earlier and more enjoyable segments of "Tamara Drewe" largely focus on the operation's hardworking proprietor, Beth Hardiment (Tamsin Greig). Though some of her guests are a bit on the pretentious side, she seems to enjoy the company of all of them, including affably self-loathing American academic Glen McGreavy (Bill Camp). Things are less chummy with the writer closest to her. Her smug, bestselling mystery writer husband, Nicholas (Roger Allam, the British Bill O'Reilly of "V for Vendetta"), has been more or less openly cheating on her off and on for years with much younger women, and is at it again. She tolerates it either out of love or inertia.
The relative calm – and for some reason the wit of the earlier scenes – is disrupted by the return of an old next-door neighbor – you guessed it, Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton). A now utterly gorgeous twenty-something writer of newspaper columns and a short shorts-wearing sex bomb, she has recently had some plastic surgery on her once comically unsightly nose. The difference is enough to get everyone's attention, including skeezy Nicholas and Andy Cobb (Luke Evans), the upright, stereotypically handsome and frequently shirt-free handyman with whom she had had a brief and stormy teenage fling years before. The attraction between them is blocked by numerous obstructions, and she eventually takes up with Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper, "An Education"), a needy, passive-aggressive, eyeliner-wearing rock star drummer.
"Tamara Drewe" starts strongly, with some funny dialogue and a richly colored, nicely stylized approach inspired loosely by Posy Simmonds' drawings and portrayed richly by cinematographer Ben Davis and production designer Alan Macdonald. Still, as the film continues, the tone turns from wryly blunt to unpleasantly crude as a series of increasingly unlikely liaisons destroys the tale's credibility. All the beautifully composed shots in the world won't help.
We're supposed to root for the sweet, ill-used Beth to get out from under the heel of the conniving and manipulative Nicholas and hook-up with the kindly and down-to-earth Glen. However, Glen's obsession with scatological matters makes the putatively likable American seem more creepy than anything else. Later in the film, Tamara, who has shown a definite leaning towards unusually pretty men, succumbs to the oily, unpleasant and thoroughly unpretty Nicholas. Why? It's certainly not the usual case of a younger woman being swept off her feet by a world-famous older man. She doesn't seem to have any particular admiration for him or his work and is successful and somewhat famous herself. Aside from being hard for us to buy, it also makes her character almost a villain as she becomes another accomplice in the ongoing poor treatment of Beth, for whom she shows little compassion. It's not that we have to admire Tamara, but by this point I simply lost interest in her.
Something has gone wrong with "Tamara Drewe" and I'm not certain how much is the fault of the screenplay adaptation by Moira Buffini, or if some of the problems lie elsewhere. Frears has had splendid luck with actors in the past, but this time the casting fairy has partially ignored him. In the lead role, Gemma Arterton is, to be blunt, very hot and skilled enough to hold the screen, but there's also an oddly flat quality to her performance; we get the feeling that she's hiding behind some kind of mask of beauty. Roger Allam as the unctuous mystery author is maybe a little too good at portraying heartless men; he doesn't display the kind of charm or complexity that might help us to understand why the various women in his life stick with him as long as they do. Bill Camp's putatively likable schlub is all schlub – a bit gross, and not incredibly likable.
It's probably unfair, but it's impossible not to wonder what this movie would have been like if Frears and his producers had been able to cast, say, Keira Knightley for Tamara, Kenneth Branagh as a more magnetic and less obviously nasty Nicholas, and Paul Giamatti as a more funny, earthy American academic. The difference between "good" and "not good" can be quite subtle, and sometime the reasons actors are famous is that they're just a little bit better at bringing out those differences on film.
On the other hand, I wouldn't touch the casting of Tamsin Greig, a little known British radio and television performer who makes the rather stock character of the long-suffering wife come alive vividly and with surprising sexiness. The same goes for Charlotte Christie and Jessica Barden – two teenagers who do a fine job playing a couple of thoroughly bored, and unusually realistic, youngsters. I haven't mentioned them earlier, but they are major catalysts to the plot and two of the films almost-saving graces. I only wish there had been more of them in the film to help pull me through the rest of it.