Stephen Frears is a tough guy to pin down. His filmography is somewhat all over the place--he's done costume drama (Dangerous Liasons), film noir (The Grifters), comedy (The Snapper), political drama (The Queen), rom-com (High Fidelity), and films that absolutely defy categorization (Dirty Pretty Things). He doesn't have an aggressive style or identifiable brand, with the exception of the fact that most of the films he makes are very, very good. Alas, he's a bit off his game with his new picture Tamara Drewe, a good-natured and breezy movie that shambles around likeably for a while, but ultimately doesn't manage to go much of anywhere.
The genre of choice this time is the pastoral comedy. The film is centered on a writer's retreat at a country farm; wildly successful mystery writer Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam) provides the enticement for would-be scribes, while his faithful and diligent wife Beth (Tasmin Greig) handles the day-to-day operation. Alas, Nicholas is a bit of a louse--as the film begins (and screenwriter Moira Buffini, adapting Posy Simmonds's graphic novel, leaps into the story feet-first and at full bore) Beth has just discovered his latest affair, and the duo has it out in full view of their guests ("I didn't know they provided material too," one of them muses). The most frequent roomer at the retreat is Glen (Bill Camp), an American struggling mightily with a tome on Thomas Hardy; hunky Andy (Luke Evans) does odd jobs. Events are frequently observed by Jody (Jessica Barden) and Casey (Charlotte Christie), two bored schoolgirls who make trouble to pass the time.
The retreat is situated near the kind of tiny village where the arrival of a taxi is a major event, so the homecoming of Tamara (Gemma Arterton) is a big deal. Once the ugly duckling daughter of the family adjacent to the Hardiments, she's thinned out and fixed her comically monstrous nose; now a sexy newspaper writer, she shakes things up from the moment she shimmies over the fence and sashays into the midst of these vaguely dissatisfied academic types.
Tamara Drewe stars out well--the dialogue is fast and snappy, shaded by petty writerly jealouslies ("I thought it was decent stuff!" Glen tells Nicholas, of his latest bestseller), and the setting charmingly, idyllically provincial. At first, Frears manages to juggle his large ensemble cast effortlessly, but as the story progresses, the balls start to drop. The script introduces the character of Ben (played, admittedly well, by Dominic Cooper), an emo rocker who takes up with Tamara--to the disgust of young Jody and Casey, who idolize him from their teeny-bopper mags. Cooper (so good in An Education and several other recent efforts) does the best he can, but the character seems to have parachuted in from another film, and the more he's on screen, the more inequality we begin to sense in the storytelling. It becomes clear which characters Frears is more interested in--and more comfortable with.
He certainly seems to like Arterton, and who can blame him--she's downright effervescent. The British actress, memorable in roles brief (Quantum of Solace) and substantial (The Disappearance of Alice Creed) displays a heretofore unglimpsed knack for light comedy, her wide open face and darting eyes nicely complimenting her up-for-anything vocal kick. She looks great, yes, but she's got more going on than that; she handles several difficult moments well, and even manages to make some of the wilder tonal shifts play.
But she can't smooth over the rough edges of the closing scenes--neither the unexpectedly grisly conclusion, which comes on as jarringly off-pitch, nor the final resolutions, as irritatingly neat and clean as a Garry Marshall comedy. For the most part, Tamara Drewe a light, fizzy piffle. But even a director of Stephen Frears's skill can't pull it together into a package that makes sense.