REVIEWED: TAMARA DREWE
September 16, 2010 Leave a comment
Lampooning pretentious whimsy in all of its forms from virtually the first frame, Stephen Frears’ adaptation of the much-acclaimed comic strip Tamara Drewe (which is itself a reworking of Thomas Hardy’s novel Far from the Madding Crowd) is a nifty little dramedy, beginning as a scathing attack on the overly twee nature of popular British cinema, though unfortunately also succumbing to these conventions itself far too often. It is, however, very well acted, and there are enough tickling moments to make it worth a gander.
Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton) is a gorgeous young journalist working for The Independent. She is returning to her rural childhood home of Ewedown in order to sell her dead mother’s home, yet, of course, she becomes acquainted with faces both new and old; former love Andy (Luke Evans), crazy rock star Ben (Dominic Cooper), and lecherous, insufferable author Nicholas (Roger Allam), who is cheating on his wife, Beth (Tamsin Greig), who is herself rather charmed herself by American academic Glen (Bill Camp). Having changed her appearance significantly since her last visit – in fixing her unfortunately bulbous nose – Tamara’s return strikes a distinct chord with the townsfolk, and seems to cause all manner of madness to converge.
Drewe is essentially a funnier version of a Todd Field film, exposing the seedy underbelly of a society infrequently glared at under the magnifying glass, but with chuckles. Yes, this sort of thing has been done before, yet Frears’ scope is trained confidently on artists and members of the intellgensia specifically; the artifice that these characters try to imbue into their work bleeds rather oddly into their personal lives, such as when the philandering Nicholas uses overly flowery prose to try and escape castigation from his wife. Along a more stringently social trajectory, Frears targets the middle-to-upper-class attitude to life, in which money and status seems to supercede all, to the extent that one dinner guest excitedly suggests that Nicholas and his wife will not divorce because the monetary investment is too great.
Clever though the observations are, there is more than enough by-the-book melodrama to go around too, especially with regard to Greig’s bored, alienated housewife character. Though Tamara Drewe satirises those tirelessly prim, twee British dramedies with appropriate venom, it also unfortunately adheres to the dog-eared schematic far too often. Resultingly, the film’s success is nothing if not measured.
However, more consistent in its skill is the talented cast; Arterton leads the pack as the gorgeous, quick-witted lead, simultaneously conveying Drewe’s near-arrogance and self-esteem-induced vulnerability. Dominic Cooper, meanwhile, is a definite highlight playing the jaded drummer who becomes besotted with Drewe, where his exasperation builds and builds to a rather disquieting, even disturbing post-credits crescendo. Equally, Roger Allam is extremely well-cast as Tamsin Greig’s pompous prig of a husband, and the young Jessica Barden, playing the precocious, teen magazine-obsessed, impressionable young Jody, helps accentuate the film’s satirical bent, particularly with regard to the superficial, vapid nature of people.
It is undeniable that Drewe’s rural setting, meshed with pretentious writers, Internet squabbles and rock stars, is a unique choice, and the ecotone of two environments cataclysmically overlapping is fun to watch, but there is one area in which the film uniformly falls apart. Its main flaw is that Frears presents dislikeable characters, whose stupidity we laugh at, before performing a jarring dramatic 180 and asking us to feel sympathetic for them. Arterton’s Drewe is the worst offender; though we accept her low self-esteem driving her to endless sexual promiscuity, the film categorically fails to get us to want her to settle down with Andy by film’s end. Quite the opposite, in fact; we hope that Andy will tell her to sod off, but Tamara Drewe is ultimately far more conventional than its graphic novel origins would let you believe.
The characters are pretty much all dumb, which is kind of the point, but none of them really have a convincing arc of idiocy; the characters have small epiphanies which make large leaps, and it isn’t very convincing or rewarding dramatically. Drewe’s sexual tryst with one character feels especially forced, and even the film’s most likeable characters – Andy and Ben – are ultimately indecisive and soppily naive respectively.
Tamara is pretty slow on the uptake, taking two hours coming to a realisation that was obvious to the viewer from ten minutes in, and her weaknesses simply aren’t tended to well enough in the script to support this time lag. The ending, however, begins to run along a more satisfyingly dark bent, with plenty of death to go around, but regrettably (if predictably), it ends more conventionally and negates what could have been a more confidently mature and emotionally satisfying climax.
For the most part, the witty script sees this film through, but Frears is capable of a lot better, and the actors aren’t really done much justice by a curiously neutered finale. Still, it is a touch diverting, and that is what counts.