Tamara Drewe: Step Down for Stephen Frears?

Tamara Drewe Tamara Drewe
Cannes Film Fest 2010 (Out of Competition)–Watching the larky and lightly likable “Tamara Drewe,” it is all but impossible to walk away without asking the necessary if perhaps bothersome question, what has happened to the gifted Brit Stephen Frears?
"Tamara Drew" hardly ranks as a disaster, much less embarrassment, and you can’t pan it outright. Still, the movie is the latest in a string of rather disposable, impersonal projects by the director of such interesting and accomplished works as “The Hit,” “My Beautiful Laundrette,” “Dangerous Liaisons” and “The Grifters.”
Even his comedies, like “The Snapper,” and “High Fidelity,” have a rude and insouciant quality that is all but absent here. They have a gonzo, hyper specific awareness about character and emotion that pushed them over the top. The new film, an adaptation of Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel, is another the director’s supremely polished though somewhat dull and uninvolving works in the vein of “Mrs. Henderson Presents” and “Cheri.”
Of the recent pieces signed by Frears, only “The Queen” suggested any depth or nuance of expression and that was largely attributed to Helen Mirren’s spirited performance and Peter Morgan’s excellent script.
Simmonds’ novel was a riff on Thomas Hardy’s “Far from the Maddening Crowd.” Moira Buffini’s script is a well apportioned adaptation unfolding in the majestically quiet and bucolic Dorset village. Gemma Arterton is the eponymous protagonist. She plays a star London newspaper columnist who has returned home following the death of her mother to oversee the sale of the family’s house.
Her property abuts the vast estate and farm presided over by Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam) and his wife, Beth (Tamsin Greig). He’s a famous novelist and prolific writer of thrillers. She runs a coveted writers’ colony. The movie has a fairly amusing opening bit, captured in sharp, trenchant jabs, of the collection of the idiosyncratic and peculiar writers assembled at the colony. The only other writer given much point of reference is the American academic Glen (Bill Camp) who’s finishing his long gestating work on Hardy.
To say the least Buffini’s adaptation is incident packed. But the episodic script moves anxiously, abruptly, from moment to moment, and rarely takes the time to observe local color, custom, the individual habits and manners of the participants.
Rather improbably, Hardiment is a world class rake with little difficulty finding beautiful and available young women to take up with him. At the start, his latest fling turns up rather inconveniently at the local pub and sparks the first of several confrontations with his obliging though clearly long-suffering wife. (She, also unpersuasively, is the brains of their operation with little clue of his recklessness.)
Returning from a decade absence, Tamara has made the graceful transition from an awkward and hesitant teenager to a now dazzling beauty. She has little difficulty arousing the attention of her one-time flame, the good looking Andy (Luke Evans). He is the handyman and gardener at the writers’ colony. (Just to underline the point, Frears has the camera snake up her backside to show off her spectacular legs.)
Two local teenagers, Jody Long (Jessica Barden) and Casey Shaw (Charlotte Christie), are impetuous, slightly amoral misfits who are always angling for adventure and excitement. They are prone to do whatever the mood strikes, like pelting passing cars with eggs or talking repeatedly about their shared obsession, the locally-born rock star Ben (Dominic Cooper).
Tamara is on assignment to interview Ben at a local music festival, and the two have an unorthodox introduction. (For a movie written by a woman and based on the graphic novel by another woman, the work feels somewhat contemptuous of career women.) In no time flat, Tamara has forsaken her journalistic integrity and submitted to the lustful advances of the notorious lady killer.
The romance escalates very quickly and two are suddenly engaged, a sudden development that incurs Andy’s great disappointment. That in turn rouses the ire of the teenagers, wild cards who are ready to pounce to truly shake things up. Jody naively (and rather dangerously) believes she is the drummer’s true love. She fractures the narrative proper by gaining access to Tamara’s computer, assuming her identity and sending out a series of sexually charged messages to a variety of interested male parties.
One of those is Hardiment, the writer for whom she once held a teenage crush. The now antic and wildly inconsistent plot goes into overdrive as the two carry out their rather furtive affair as Ben and Andy stand on the margins.
Frears brings it all off with a certain cold efficiency, but there’s little trace of personality or freshness. (The only actor who seems in on the joke is the talented jokester Cooper, doing a very funny George Michael riff.) The biggest problem is the film has no handle on what to make of or believe about the title character. Arterton is clearly a voluptuous and welcome presence, but the conception and playing of the character seem fundamentally at odds with another.
That conflict is never adequately acknowledged, much less dealt with. Her Tamara Drewe is fun, rambunctious and clever though obviously unintuitive on the subject of men. It defies the imagination (and good sense) the movie is predicated on a relationship that has no sexual chemistry or emotional believability. Most of the script is bluntly foretold and contains little surprise or wonder. The Hardiment character is a particularly unwelcome kind of self-regarding creep, but even so the comeuppance he receives is rather disproportionate to the film it is part of.
A lot of talented people worked on the film. “Tamara Drewe” is filled with a technical craft and solid framework, from the lustrous and decorous widescreen cinematography by Ben Davis and the jaunty score of Alexandre Desplat. It is just the center that is mush.