Film Review: Tamara Drewe

There&#8217;s less than meets the eye in this lightweight comedy loosely based on Thomas Hardy&#8217;s <i>Far from the Madding Crowd</i>.

Stephen Frears’ slick ensemble comedy Tamara Drewe screened to enthusiastic applause at Cannes last May. Those worn out by a downbeat, generally unremarkable competition lineup seemed to thrill at the movie’s frothy farce, breezy pace, and sun-dappled English pastures. Still, the reaction was curious, given how mediocre a movie it is. Tamara Drewe is an alluring shell of a film that goes through the motions efficiently and looks good doing it, but has almost nothing going on beneath the surface and not a moment of spontaneity or surprise in sight.

Hardcore Anglophiles and perhaps fans of Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel (on which the film is based) may find what they’re looking for here, and the film’s combination of accessible Hollywood comedy codes with an air of Euro pedigree is tempting, at least initially. The plot is loosely inspired by Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd: A young woman named Tamara Drewe—once a beak-nosed ugly duckling, now a surgically enhanced swan and successful journalist—returns to her family home and wreaks havoc on the usually tranquil rural village, driving the men mad with lust and making the women seethe with jealousy.

Tamara’s romantic entanglements revolve around three men: Nicholas, a pompous middle-aged mystery writer (Roger Allam) who shamelessly cheats on his martyr of a wife, Beth (Tamsin Greig), as she proofreads his drafts and bakes scones for the frustrated novelists and academics attending the couple’s writers’ retreat; Andy (Luke Evans), a hunky, upstanding farmhand with whom Tamara had a brief fling as a teenager; and Ben (Dominic Cooper), a preening indie drummer with a diva-like scowl that he matches with black eyeshadow and a floppy hipster hairdo. The only man around who doesn’t fall over himself whenever Tamara struts by in her cutoffs is Glen (Bill Camp), an American Thomas Hardy scholar (wink, wink) who only has eyes for dowdy, sweet-natured Beth.

Trailing these people and often instigating the mishaps that bring them together are two adolescent girls (Jessica Barden and Charlotte Christie), who act out their boredom by ogling celebrities in magazines and harassing village residents who seem to be minding their business.

Frears and screenwriter Moira Buffini juggle this large cast of characters deftly, moving among them with ease so that each of their dilemmas gets its due attention. The problem is that the filmmakers are dealing with some of the most unappealing people to show up in a romantic comedy since who knows when (the whiny rock star vying for most annoying with the drooling high-school harpies). The one character we want to like, the victimized Beth, squanders our sympathies with her boneheaded devotion to a grotesquely insufferable husband.

Most problematic is Tamara herself, who, as played by Gemma Arterton, is a ravishing zero of a heroine. In one scene, she claims to be full of roiling emotions, and her impulsive behavior throughout the film certainly points to unhealed wounds. But she comes off as such a vacuous blank that there’s no logic or drama—or comedy, for that matter—to her neurotic bed-hopping. It’s tricky to build a story around an enigma, and even trickier when that enigma is so bland that you quickly lose interest in trying to figure out what her deal is.

It’s hard to care much about what happens to anyone in the film, something that feels like a fatal flaw here. For this kind of material to work, we either need to be invested in the characters, or the situations they encounter should be so extremely entertaining that it doesn’t matter.

But the tone of Tamara Drewe is pitched uneasily between social satire (with shots taken at writers, country folks and pretentious urban fops) and toilet humor, and the film offers nothing we can’t see coming from around the corner. Everything is crisply choreographed, carefully formatted, and chirps along with enough polish and professionalism that it takes a little while to notice that none of it is very good. The result is an odd, rather obnoxious piece of work: energetic, but devoid of charm; brimming with gags, but little wit and fewer laughs; full of romantic torment, but soulless and, apart from Beth’s lovesick fury, lacking in anything resembling a real human emotion.

Frears has come up with some very good stuff, including Prick Up Your Ears, with its quirky, clear-eyed portrait of a doomed relationship; the dagger-like elegance of his Dangerous Liaisons; a juicy Oedipal noir, The Grifters; and most recently, the light touch and deep feeling of The Queen. But with Cheri, his shrill, tone-deaf Colette adaptation, and now Tamara Drewe, it seems Frears is losing his way.

He still knows how to package a product, though. His new film looks good enough to eat, with its sprawling, golden-hued meadows and lushly temperamental English skies. Buyer beware: Tamara Drewe may appear to be home-baked, but it tastes distinctly store-bought on the way down.