Imagine an old-fashioned Ealing comedy about English eccentrics told in the style of a graphic novel and you’ll have some idea of what “Tamara Drewe” is like. Stephen Frears’s adaptation of Posy Simmonds’ illustrated book (which was itself loosely inspired by Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd”) succeeds in melding these two apparently divergent elements into a quirkily amusing whole.
The premise is the old one about how the return of someone long gone affects a small community. In this case the returnee is writer Drewe (Gemma Arterton), a once-plain girl who’s come back to her rural English village as a voluptuous journalist. Since she’s come back to fix up the family farm, which she’s just inherited, for sale, her impact is especially strong on the writers’ retreat next door. It’s run by manager-cook Beth Hardiment (Tamsin Greig), and its permanent resident—and biggest draw—is her husband, successful mystery novelist Nicholas (Roger Allam), an inveterate philanderer whose eye immediately falls on Tamara.
So does that of the Hardiment handyman Andy Cobb (Luke Evans), a hunk whose family once owned the Drewe farm and was Tamara’s childhood buddy, and whom she now hires to do some work for her. But romantically she takes up instead with visiting rock drummer-songwriter Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper), who’s just left his band and is looking for action. He also happens to be an obsession with Jody and Casey (Jessica Barden and Charlotte Christie), a pair of bored, trouble-making local teens who soon make it their business to spy on the pair.
Among the other colorful characters on display—mostly writers paying for a stay at the rustic retreat—is shy American professor Glen McCreavy (Bill Camp), who’s writing a book on none other than Thomas Hardy, and finds himself attracted to sweet Beth and appalled at Nicholas’ treatment of her.
Under Frears’s able hand, “Tamara Drewe” juggles its various story strands skillfully. The satiric jabs at the pomposity of writers, especially the successful ones, and the desperation of wannabes are expertly done. The stress within the Hardiment marriage has a nifty blend of comedy and pathos. The romantic triangle of Drewe, Cobb and Sergeant smolders quietly. And in the groupie fanaticism of the teen girls the picture recalls “The World of Henry Orient,” but with a sharper edge.
That last plot thread is helped especially by Cooper, who brings a touch of Russell Brand to Sergeant, but the ensemble overall is strong. Allam is especially effective as the smarmy philanderer, but on the other hand Camp is delightful as his polar opposite. And while Arterton and Evans don’t stand out as much, that’s mostly a factor of their characters as written; and both are certainly great to look at.
Mention should also be made of the flavorful locations and the stellar work of production designer Alan Macdonald, art decorator Christopher Wyatt, set decorator Tina Jones, costumer Consolata Boyle and cinematographer Ben Davis, as well as of Alexandre Desplat, whose score isn’t among his very best but is still a jaunty complement to the action.
“Tamara Drewe” is a bit uneven, especially when it comes to wrapping things up at the close. But as with the old Ealing comedies, it has fun with the array of oddballs that make up the character list.