Tamara Drewe

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/19/10 00:34:36

"Stephen Frears is good at funny/real ensembles, whatever the source."
5 stars (Awesome)

"Tamara Drewe" is an odd film, able to defy expectations even if all the audience knows going into it is its name. After all, one would expect this movie to be a showcase for Gemma Arterton as the title character, and while she's certainly memorable, this movie establishes itself early as an ensemble piece. It will likely also confound retail shelvers in the future, as it doesn't quite favor light drama over weighty comedy enough to make that classification easy.

The movie doesn't open with Drewe at all, but with an ad for a writer's retreat in Dorset. Beth Hardiment (Tamsin Greig) oversees it, as well as the attached farm. Her husband Nicholas (Roger Allam) is a bestselling mystery writer, currently seeing a pretty young thing on the side and dispensing false humility to the other writers, such as visiting American academic Glen (Bill Camp), would-be novelist Diggory (John Bett), online lesbian porn author Eustacia (Bronagh Gallagher), et alia. Tamara is a writer, too, a columnist for a London newspaper just returned to handle the renovation and sale of her late mother's house. She'll call on Beth's handyman Andy Cobb (Luke Evans) for help, even if he was her boyfriend back when she was a teenager with a now surgically-reduced nose and his family owned the land for generation before the Drewes. She'll also take up with a drummer she interviews, Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper). Ben has a couple of local fans, troublemaking girls Jody Long (Jessica Barden) and Casey Shaw (Charlotte Christie).

Glen is stalled on a book about Thomas Hardy, a wink at the film's source material twice removed (this film is an adaptation of Posy Simmond's graphic novel, itself inspired by Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd). Familiarity with that story isn't necessary to enjoy Drewe, though; those who (like myself) come in cold will find an intriguing story that plays familiar situations in interesting ways. Screenwriter Moira Buffini and director Stephen Frears do a nice job of working new characters and information in without necessarily tipping off their significance, and later deftly pulling earlier moments toward the end. They divide the focus between characters expertly and equitably so that nobody's story seems extraneous and flawed characters aren't presented as strict saints or sinners.

They also deliver laughs that are both frequent and spread across the spectrum of potential tones. The opening bits introducing us to Beth's writers demonstrate their personalities in witty fashion, and the passive-aggressive sniping Nicholas and Glen do at each other is wonderfully dry. And not only is Ben a fine use of rock & roller tropes, whenever Jody and Casey appear on-screen, they tend to be broad rips at the irrational intensity of adolescence, darkly funny while also also ringing very true. Indeed, Jessica Barden might be the find of the film, a teen who adds a jolt to every scene she's in.

The rest of the cast is impressive as well. Tamsin Greig, for instance, takes a character who could be seen as little more than pathetic - indeed, much of the movie is Nicholas making a fool out of her - and somehow manages to get us to feel not pity for Beth, but admiration and fondness for all her positive qualities. She also gets to deliver what may be the film's best line. Roger Allam takes a character who is pretty much a cad and makes him a human one; Bill Camp handles his opposite number with similar skill, Luke Evans plays the rugged farmer and handyman straight out of the romance novel (albeit one who can not just fix the house, but recommend the proper colors to paint it), but always stops well short of making a parody of the character.

Which leaves Gemma Arterton in the title role. She has a little help in earning the audience's sympathy - hearing that Andy used to call Tamara "Beaky" while today Jody and Casey call her "Plastic" does make it seem like she just can't win - but Frears and his crew work against her in little ways, too; when she first appears, we do think that there's something a little off about her face even before her nose has been mentioned. But it's Arterton who always brings just the right tone to Tamara; she's intelligent and self-aware enough to harness her beauty, but also capable of things that could easily lose her the audience. Instead, she gives us enough of a sense of this girl that we believe she can do better.

It leads to a finale that the audience would likely have described as too much if they'd heard it at the start. But it earns the endings that everyone gets, and it does have one for everybody. And while Tamara has proven to be at the center of the action, the movie remains a successful ensemble piece anyway.

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