Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Review: "Tamara Drewe"

"Tamara Drewe" is a story about writers, and does a lovely job of depicting the interior worlds they inhabit, and the fragile egos that often accompany a lifetime spent mostly inside one's own head.

It's a comedy, but in that distinctly British mode that always involves a generous ladling of misery. It succeeds as a comedy of manners and observation, though it errs in presenting us with a wide array of interesting characters, and then selecting the least compelling among them to drive the story.

The film is based on a comic strip by Posy Simmonds that is essentially a modern take on Thomas Hardy's fourth book, "Far from the Madding Crowd." The screenplay by Moira Buffini even gifts us with a Thomas Hardy scholar, one of a half-dozen or so authors living at Stonefield, a writer's retreat in the idyllic (and fictional) village of Ewedown.

An inside joke is that the Hardy expert, who's been toiling away on a book about him for two years, spends much of his time convincing others that Hardy is not a dreadful bore.
"Tamara Drewe" is anything but dull.

Stonefield is the demesne of Nicholas Hardiment, a successful writer of crime novels all featuring the same hero, and his long-suffering wife Beth (Tamsin Greig), who manages the farm and the writers-in-residence, while bearing his numerous affairs. Nicholas is played by Roger Allam in a spot-on performance as a man who holds nothing but condescension for those around him, including his fans, but is smart enough to conceal it.

Storytellers are really liars and thieves, Nicholas sermonizes, and seems intent on proving his own platitude.

The guest writers are mostly would-be and wannabe authors, and one suspects Nicholas only keeps them around for the extra income. Glen, the Hardy scholar, is the only American in the group, and seems more interested in sticking his nose into Stonefield's ongoing passion plays than finishing his book. Glen is played by Bill Camp in a wondrous turn that lets the audience see him thinking.

Things are shaken up with the arrival of Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton), a local girl who was mostly known for her impish sense of humor and huge nose. She's since had the nose bobbed into a cute lightly-freckled button, and has become a thriving columnist for a London newspaper.
The ostensible purpose of her return is to fix her family's old home up for sale, but there's clearly some puckish pride in showing off to the yokels how luminous she turned out.

All the men at Stonefield are instantly transfixed the moment Tamara climbs over the neighboring fence wearing short-shorts -- none more so than local handyman Andy Cobb (Luke Evans), who had a fling with her when they were teens. She hires Andy to renovate her home -- which used to belong to his family -- and maybe measure her personal drapes.

Things spin sideways when Tamara falls for Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper), the drummer and songwriter for a famous rock band, Swipe. Soon the tiny town is atwitter over a famed musician residing in their midst. Andy, meanwhile, can't believe he lost out to a guy who wears makeup.

It's around this point that the plot takes an unexpected, and for me unappreciated, turn. Two 15-year-old girls (Jessica Barden and Charlotte Christie), who had been acting as sort of the local Greek chorus commenting on the comings and goings and trystings of the main characters, suddenly jump into the driver's seat and speed off.

Things eventually get righted, but I kept yearning for the focus to return to the flighty Tamara, the drolly narcissistic Nicholas and the self-deprecating Glen. Instead, we spend an entire reel of film with the screechy, whiny, manipulative brats at the fore.

I don't hold it too much against the film, though, because director Stephen Frears ("The Queen") has such a great touch with his actors, that everything that comes before or after that wrong turn is such a delight. These characters are so vibrant, flawed and alive, I just loved spending time with them.

3 stars out of four

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