In the rural wilds of England, a small farming community and the sleepy writer's colony it harbors is shaken up by the return of one of its wayward daughters in Tamara Drewe, the big-screen adaptation of a literary-minded graphic novel by British cartoonist Posy Simmonds. It was one of my favorite comics of 2008, and though the movie version seems a tad frothier than I remember the drawn version being, it is one of the more pleasantly entertaining films of recent memory.
The story begins prior to Tamara's arrival. With the onset of summer, new writers have come to the countryside to work. Among them is Glen McCreavy (Bill Camp, Public Enemies), an American scholar exploring the more obscure fiction of Thomas Hardy. With a taste for gossip rivaled only by his appetite for pastries, Glen begins to observe life in the village, including the troubled marriage of his hosts. Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam, Speed Racer) is a writer of a popular crime series, and his wife Beth (Tamsin Greig, TV's Black Books) keeps his business life organized even as he sneaks off to indulge in his private hobbies. The philanderer has been caught again, but Beth forgives him again, and that is that.
Naturally, Tamara Drewe will turn Nicholas' head, though she doesn't actually mean to at first. Tamara has been living in London and working as a journalist. When she left town years back, the folks knew her as a sad girl with a gigantic schnozz; she comes back as Gemma Arterton (Prince of Persia), who could turn heads standing all alone in a statue garden. Turns out Nicholas rejected her as a teenager, and the Hardiments' groundskeeper, Andy (Luke Evans, Clash of the Titans (also with Arterton)), also dumped the high school girl after a short tryst. Guess who wants her back now that she's successful and cosmetically altered?
For her choice, Tamara picks a drummer from a famous rock band instead. If Tamara's return rocked the grassy meadows, then the arrival of Ben (Dominic Cooper, An Education) is the aftershock. His dog, a boxer named Boss, is a nuisance who will annoy plenty of people, and Ben himself is the object of affection for another bored 15-year-old, Jody (Jessica Barden), well on her way to being the next Tamara all on her own. The jealous and devious girl will prove to be just as troublesome as that dog.
Director Stephen Frears (The Queen) helms the script by Moira Buffini, and together they make a delectable English comedy. The clash of big city and small town is nothing new for this kind of thing. As usual, the morals of the characters, regardless of which part of the social or physical map they hail from, aren't too far apart, and much of the laughs come from each character's insistence that he or she is above it. Most of the participants are engaging in infidelity to some degree, and the hubris of judging Tamara's bad choices allows everyone else to be blind to the dumb things they do to themselves. The social criss-crossing is handled very well, even managing to keep a rather large cast organized. (Buffini has also written the forthcoming adaptation of Jane Eyre, and judging by Tamara Drewe, she's an excellent fit.) Frears stages the comedy with a very light touch, and Ben Davis' photography begins with an artificial bucolic sheen that slowly erodes as the seasons change and the sins come to light. It makes Tamara Drewe a movie that is easy to digest and hard to dislike, even if it is missing some of the poignancy of the source material. The comic has more commentary from Glen, who is an outside observer possessed of his own obsession with Tamara, making his motives as duplicitous as everyone else's.
One aspect of the movie that will have Simmonds fans very pleased is the casting. Casting director Leo Davis (Antichrist) and Frears have done a remarkable job of finding performers who look just like the drawings in the book. Some of the likenesses are uncanny. The ensemble is excellent, with young Jessica Barden being a particular stand-out. She is petulant and energetic, making the viewer sympathetic to Jody's dreams even as we revile her adolescent selfishness.
Gemma Arterton, who is often relegated to "feisty/pretty sidekick" roles, is also very good as the title character. Tamara isn't an easy protagonist to breathe life into, she could easily have come across as shallow. Yet, Arterton maintains her self-confidence even if it is often cosmetic. She is as convincing with her doubt as she is sexy, which is essential to making Tamara more than just a misunderstood pretty face. She doesn't quite manage to pull off the ridiculous prosthetic proboscis Frears gives her in the flashbacks, but I'm not sure anyone could. (It actually looks good when viewed straight on, it's the profile that looks fake.)
Tamara Drewe isn't perfect. It could have used either a little trimming or a quickening of the pace, and the way everything comes together in the end is a tad bit forced. (Ironically, the final act is the one thing Frears did speed up.) Still, it's a good enough time getting there that such transgressions can easily be forgiven. It's breezy entertainment, not too demanding but not insulting either. A pretty movie with a soul for those who want to look--just like its titular heroine.