Directed by Stephen Frears
Stephen Frears’s ribald and loudly acted Dangerous Liaisons made its way from classic French novel to film via a play by Christopher Hampton, and several other of his movies have trod similarly winding roads. Tamara Drewe is an adaptation (scripted by Moira Buffini) of a Guardian comic strip by Posy Simmonds that was itself a cheeky modern twist on Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. Frears’s first shot wittily acknowledges the time travel, as farmhand Andy (Luke Evans) chops wood in silhouette on a pastoral Victorian hill, before reaching down for a slug of plastic-bottled water. Largely, we’re in Simmonds country – the nearly unreal colors, dry humor, and modern dilemmas of her extremely likeable comic are faithfully reproduced here, and it’s clear there was no need for fresh storyboarding. Frears isn’t obnoxious about it, though. There are no cutaways to actual comic drawings, as in The Warriors or Ang Lee’s Hulk, just gradations in the overall design and a few subtle split-screens. As in the strip, snickering at fussy old Hardy with arrogant hindsight is never the point.
Andy used to own his farm, but now he shares it with owner-neighbor Beth (Tamsin Greig) and her husband, the detective novelist Nicholas (Roger Allam). The couple are hosting a writer’s retreat, which brings scribes like the American academic Glen (Bill Camp), floundering through a book on Hardy, and Andy’s old teenage lover and farm partner Tamara (Gemma Arterton). Formerly nicknamed “Beaky” by taunting playmates, Tamara is now cripplingly sexy after a nose job, which she chronicled in her Carrie Bradshaw-like London paper column. Tamara’s arrival complicates matters – Andy’s still in love with her and the philandering Nicholas must have her. She torments them both by importing a new boyfriend, post-punk drummer Ben (Dominic Cooper).
Frears never lets this throng of major characters overwhelm us, and a duo of onlooking (and eventually interacting) teen girls serve as the story’s rustic Greek chorus, and keep the action organized. Arterton is the axis, but Allam narrowly steals the show as the faux-humble novelist (he calls his stuff “airport fodder” that just helps him “earn a crust”) who feels entitled to affairs with fawning young women. Guileless Glen, Giamattian and unthreatening in skort, eyeglasses, and sandals, at first seems an ill-equipped rival, but he is able to both woo the suffering Beth and prick the anti-academic Nicholas with questions like, “Do you ever get tired of writing about rapes and murders?” Tamara Drewe is consistently funny and honest, though it’s worth it alone for the only knockdown brawl between novelist and literary critic you’re likely to see onscreen this year.
Opens October 8