It’s been a prime year for left of centre comic adaptations, and Tamara Drewe continues the trend. Adapted from the serial by Posy Simmonds which initially appeared in The Guardian, the film stars Gemma Arterton as a bombshell journalist, who, returning to her rural Dorset hometown after success in London, kicks up a bit of an amorous storm.
Set in the fictional Dorsetshire village of Ewedon, the film opens with sun-drenched landscapes of rural exotica: shots of rolling fields, clumps of trees, and masses of livestock. Before long, a striking yellow Mini pulls up, pelted by eggs thrown by youngsters. Out steps Tamara, spitting at no-one in particular, “What a dump.”
After her mother’s death, she is back to sort out the house she left behind and soon becomes entangled in the local writer’s retreat, owned by esteemed thriller writer/serial philanderer Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam, with a Hitchens-like swagger) and his wife Beth (Tamsin Greig).
“Far from the madding crowd”, the retreat’s newspaper ad reads, cheekily hinting at the book’s Hardian inspiration, and its promise of solace has attracted a varied brood of authors, including American academic Glen McCreavy (Bill Camp). But with Drewe’s intrusion, and her blazing love affair with wildchild rock star Ben (a grungy Dominic Cooper), the village’s humble equilibrium is completely obliterated.
From book to film the major shift is one of tone. Where the book is thick with import, tackling its petty jealousies and rural ennui with a measured, sophisticated grace that is grounded in a gentle satire of the bitterness of middle class England, the film becomes more outwardly perky, much more of a comedy than a wit-laced drama. The beats, set-ups and scenes are mostly present, but on screen there is a playful sense of pastiche, nudging Simmonds towards a parody of soap opera dramas that sends up the voyeurism and nosiness of novelists, gossipers and the audience itself.
For example, two teenage girls, one of many voices in the book, are here fleshed out into a sharp send-up of the viewers’ gaze. Scripted with keen observation, and played with tremendous flair by Jessica Barden and Charlotte Christie, they obsess over Tamara and Ben, constantly comment on the action like a Greek Chorus, and will the plot towards greater emotional chaos, just for the fun of it.
Life in Ewedon, in fact, is pretty dull. Away from the faux rustic, upper middle class bubble of the writers, there’s a tragic undercurrent of a community stifled by encroaching commuters. The bus shelter, a regular location throughout the film, is disused, only continuing life as a graffiti-strewn haven for smoking and boozing. Once Drewe arrives, and brings with her the beloved rock star, the girls find a tortured kind of wonder in acting out gossip rag fantasies, papping the lovers and, eventually, breaking into the house to get a closer look.
But, whereas Tamara Drewe works as an intelligent, often hilarious satire, it forsakes itself in the final act, where, as the picture book warmth of summer and autumn gives way to winter, the illicit affairs and tangled emotions come to a messy climax. These weightier scenes don’t fully puncture the air of fun, and instead feel tonally awkward. Tamsin Greig, putting in a supremely versatile performance, starts to seem out of place when engaging in histrionics.
And while Arterton is, in turns, brazen, damaged, and utterly gorgeous, there’s a sense that the script angles for a character depth that it doesn’t fully achieve. As she asks, soaked in tears and up to her neck in romantic drama, “Why do I do these things?”, we’re not fully sure.
There are hints of insecurity and conflicted values, as her ambition is scuppered by a rhinoplasty-aided makeover. It’s also worth asking, do we care? That’s not a bad thing, but once the film resolves itself, like the book, with a tidy, predictable union between Tamara and burly farmer Andy (Luke Evans), who, in the film, liked her before the nose job, bless, it feels just a tad light.
But Tamara Drewe is never less than enjoyable, and it could not be a fresher prospect in the current cinematic climate. It is resoundingly British, using as its referential bedrock a middle-aged sort of outlook full of little bookshops and Radio 4 Easter eggs.
Stephen Frears is not one for being predictable or following trends, and here he has helmed a mature, but not dreary, gem.
Tamara Drewe is in cinemas today.