A frequent idiom of broadsheet reviewers putting pen to paper on the subject of Tamara Drewe is to describe it as a more debauched variant of The Archers, something which is certainly true to an extent, tinged as proceedings are in the cosy trappings of Radio 4 teatime dramas. However, to do so risks dismissing this adaptation of Posy Simmonds’ serial as yet another rustic folly laced with the standard Curtisian saccharine associated with most modern British comedy. Instead, director Stephen Frears has produced a film which not only contains the expected biting hyper-sexuality, but also a refreshing streak of bittersweet sincerity.
The plot – loosely based upon Thomas Hardy’s GCSE student-baiting Far From The Madding Crowd – sees Gemma Arterton’s titular character make a return to the idyllic Dorset community she had left years earlier to pursue a career in journalism. Upon arriving, however, she quickly draws the attention of a number of the local menfolk, including; the object of a teenage fling, Andy (Luke Evans); philandering fathead crime author, Nicholas (Roger Allam); and smouldering faux-Doherty rocker, Ben (Dominic Cooper).
Frears’ is a film graced with many excellent, albeit sometimes superficial, qualities. For one, it is suitably cinematic – it’s bathed in the perennially picturesque glow of the English countryside as the film progresses over its 12-month course and is gratuitously peppered with morning mist, grey drizzle and fields of mud. Moira Buffini’s script, too, is both suitably snarky and pleasantly pulpy. At times, even Frears’ direction seems to take the film’s comic origins to heart, utilising as he does stylised split-screen and punchy flashbacks featuring Arterton donning a false nose last seen peering down Warren Beatty’s face in Dick Tracy.
The cast, too, are unilaterally excellent. Standout performances come from Allam and Tamsin Greig as his long-suffering wife. The latter lends the film a touching, quiet dignity, whilst the former is the laconic, sneering, nightmarish Bizarro-Stephen Fry who lurks within the darkest imaginings of the collective consciousness of the upper middle-class. Bill Camp, too, deserves a special mention for his wonderful portrayal of frustrated egghead Glen, deftly mixing awkward charm with an underlying streak of sadness. Elsewhere, Cooper’s pouting drummer savant is entertaining, if mannered, whilst Evans’ Gabriel Oak-esque farmhand is suitably naturalistic.
That leaves Arterton, who performs admirably, but is stuck playing an elusive, distant figure who – despite leaving an undeniable impression – seems to be somewhat devoid of any concrete substance, often rendering her little more than a catalyst for the events surrounding her. Characterisation is, annoyingly, hinted at more than it is illustrated, and consequently one is left feeling as though there is a far more interesting aspect of her character waiting to be illuminated by a little more insight into her motivations.
Similarly, it’s easy sometimes to feel ever so slightly lost in Drewe’s world. Though the trappings of middle England may be more than familiar to Southern cinemagoers, what the film lacks is a single protagonist whose movements dutifully serve as the audience’s main window into proceedings. As it is, characters – Andy and Glen, in particular – frustratingly phase in and out of proceedings, leaving the viewer occasionally feeling adrift watching a distinctly episodic narrative, grounded only by Greig’s calming presence.
Perhaps, though, this is all part of the film’s undeniable gossipy charm. It’s a testament to Frears, too, that though Tamara Drewe may feel periodically distant, it is never bleak. Even amidst tragedy the film carefully manages to maintain a steady tonal course, bringing to mind fellow comic adaptation Ghost World, which expertly maintained a similar level of warmly melancholic humour.
As such, despite the lead’s patchy characterisation, this is a delightfully frothy film which consistently succeeds in both entertaining the audience with its catty charm as well as engaging them at an emotional level with well-rendered characters portrayed by a terrific ensemble cast.