British director Stephen Frears has had one of the more interesting film careers behind the lens. He's been responsible for such known quantities as The Queen and Dangerous Liaisons, as well as sly mini-masterworks like The Grifters and Prick Up Your Ears. He's been nominated for Oscars, BAFTAs, and even a Razzie or two (for the failed Dr. Jekyll revisionism of Mary Reilly). He's tackled comedy, controversy, and even a clash of cultures within his own country. So when one reads that he is behind a film adaptation of the popular UK comic strip Tamara Drewe (itself a modern take on Thomas Hardy's literary classic Far from the Madding Crowd) it's no big surprise. He's the kind of quirky filmmaker who takes as many chances as there are choices. In this case, however, the man and the material don't quite match up, and it's really Frears' fault this time. It's just that, as reset period pieces go, this bawdry updated bodice ripper has too much cheek and not enough good cheer. It wins us over eventually, but it takes every fiber in its quaint, calm body to do so.
It's been many years since UK journalist Tamara Drewe has been back in her quaint English countryside town of Ewedown. Home to a famed writer's retreat and crime novelist Nicolas Hardiment, our plucky heroine has complicated memories of her past. Picked on mercilessly because of her large nose and no nonsense attitude, Tamara returns with some welcome rhinoplasty, a smoking hot adult physique, and a bucket full of bad blood. Most of her animosity is aimed at failed businessman turned Hardiment handyman Andy. After all, he dumped her when they were teens. Hoping to settle up her late mother's estate and leave quickly, she is trapped by the temptation to right a few wrongs. Then she ends up the arm candy for a ridiculous rock icon named Ben. Before long, Tamara is teasing the men in Ewedown, exposing their childish, adulterous intentions. Of course, such comeuppance has an effect on who she is as well.
From the moment we hear a character refer to Thomas Hardy and Far from the Madding Crowd, director Frears explains and fully exposes his point behind the otherwise breezy adaptation. While Posy Simmonds comic interpretation of the famed novel is perhaps a bit more blunt, Tamara Drewe the movie makes its allusions as sly and subversive as the wit inherent in the material. This is a clever film, a fascinating bit of modernization that dampens much of the original's handwringing and tear jerking for cynicism and a wealth of pop culture quips. As embodied by adolescent mixers Jody Long and Casey Shaw, we get a prickly deconstruction of the current entertainment enigma (one starlet admits to having 36 GG breasts in the girl's favorite gossip rag) while juxtaposing said scandal against the always ripe secrets of small town. Tamara's arrival is marked by as much over the fence whispers as truth, the entire film basing its many plot machinations on misunderstandings, indignities, and the desire for some sort of long simmering payback. Husbands do said to wives, guests do it to hosts and hostesses, and the entirety of Ewedown does it to the rest of England proper.
Places smack dab in the middle of this genial jaundice is Gemma Arterton, a tree ripened vision of the kind of vital sexuality the local scene has been missing for years. With her pouty lips, short shorts, and come hither completeness, Tamara is indeed what every male in the local has fantasized about - and she's not unapproachable. Indeed, with motives to complex to completely discuss in two hours, our heroine hops into bed with everyone except the man she's meant to be with. As with most dramatics (even those laced with comedic value), we have to wait and be manipulated into rooting for the unlikely duo to get together. In the meantime, the pointless engagement to slack rocker Ben (played expertly by Dominic Cooper) and the eventual tryst with Nicolas demands a carton or two of suspension disbelief. Indeed, as played by Roger Allam, our famed scribe is such an insufferable bore that you can't imagine why - outside book groupies - he gets laid at all. The same thing happens with other characters here. Tamsin Grieg is the kind of doormat spouse you believe can be easily manipulated and fooled and Bill Camp's American academic gives all US intellectuals a bad name.
At least Andy, the predestined partner for our confused heroine comes across with the necessary balance of backstory and brawn to make us care. Tamara may have had her heart broken by this immature lout, but life has dealt him enough bum cards to make his actions a karmic curse. Sure, the slight narrative contrivances that keep them apart are more akin to the pages of a graphic novel than a real rewrite of T. Hardy, but we still buy most of them. In fact, the biggest letdown in all of Tamara Drewe is the lack of vision from Frears. Treating this material relatively straight is not the way to go. After all, you've got a pair of prepubescent kids causing Greek Chorus like complexities and yet you don't address that fanciful facet at all. Indeed, Frears is too uptight and tame to let this stuff run wild. One could easily see a more outrageous and outlandish take on Tamara's travails, a whipsmart social commentary mixed with dashes of camp and kitsch. Instead, we get a calm kitchen sink experience where jokes are few and far between and everyone wears a mask of veiled anxiety on their otherwise "veddy British' kisser. Tamara Drewe is a light enough entertainment. What it could have been, however, slightly mars what it is now.
Sony Pictures Classics provides a marvelous AVC encoded, 1080p, 2.40:1 transfer that does a terrific job of highlighting the gorgeous UK settings the story employs. There are shots of the Ewedown countryside that will literally take your breath away with the clarity and beauty. Some of the interior moments also work well, as when the Hardiments hold court with crime fiction fans or when Jody daydreams of a tryst with Ben. Along the way, Frears tosses in oddball touches like split screens, flashback fade ins along the frame, and other moments of minor merriment. When we get to the more action oriented finale, we can see a bit of CG magic being employed, but for the most part, the picture is terrific, offering a spectacular view of Tamara and her territory.
From the idyllic noise of birds and wildlife rustling in the back speakers to the crystal clarity of the dialogue and other conversational elements, the Dolby Digital 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is excellent. The musical score by Alexandre Desplat adds the nuances and nods to the unconventional that Frears finds vexing. There is also a nice directional element to the soundscape, as cars and cows move back and forth across the channels. Overall, the audio and video facets to this release are just fine.
There are a scant few bonus features provided, but what we do get are quite excellent. Stars Arterton and Luke Evans (Andy) sit back for a jovial, jokey commentary track that explains some of the pros and cons of making a movie filled with English country beauty (and rather messy livestock). They may not provide the pros and cons of the project, but they are excellent host. A Making of EPK is just that - a tad too fluffy and superficial. Better is the comic to cinema translation featurette "Reconstructing Tamara Drewe". It give a nice overview of the adaptation process. There is also a trailer, for those interested.
Bubbling somewhere under the surface of this surprisingly effective film is the witty, wonky girl's adventure tale the original Tamara Drewe promised. Arterton and the rest of the cast do their damndest to turn up the folly, but Frears keeps masking it in a veil of import that unwarranted. Still, the movie earns out admiration - and amusement - to the point where it is a Highly Recommended romp. Sure, things could be done better and presented with more panache, but for the most part, you'll wish this quixotic vixen was returning to your home town, your past indiscretions right in her ample sites.
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