The Stephen Frears comedy Tamara Drewe came and went quietly during its theatrical release, doing limp arthouse business in the US and somewhat better in its native UK. It seems destined for a reputation as a minor turn from Frears, who’s had more success with movies as diverse as High Fidelity and The Queen. Yet in the tradition of several Frears movies, Tamara Drewe is an appealing if low-key comedy.
Wit its cute Englishness and affection for sleepy small-town life, it would be easy enough to tag the film as either a romantic comedy or one of those faux-quirky Britcoms about an ensemble of eccentrics. But, true to its origins (comic strips by cartoonist Posy Simmonds, eventually collected as a graphic novel), the film is actually more of a comic soap. The titular character, played by perpetual next-big-thing Gemma Arterton, functions less as a plucky heroine than a focal point for gossip.
In fact, Tamara remains somewhat opaque throughout the film—on the DVD, the filmmakers point out that she is the only character whose feelings aren’t always easy to read. Once an ugly duckling, she returns to her hometown as a successful newspaper columnist with confidence, owed in part to a nose job that has rendered her a head-turning beauty. Male heads turned include the pompous, successful mystery writer Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam); local handyman Andy (Luke Evans) who had a fling with pre-surgery Tamara; rock star Ben (Dominic Cooper), visiting for a festival and enticed to stay by Tamara’s charms. Tamara herself intends to stay only as long as it takes to fix up her family home and sell it, yet lingers, finding inspiration for her writing.
The movie is steeped in writing, a fine quality given how few movies seem to have any interest in the actual workings of inspiration, writing, and publishing. Much of the action, such as it is, takes place across the field from the Drewe residence, at a writers’ retreat run by Hardiment’s put-upon wife Beth (Tamsin Greig). Hardiment is a serial philanderer who would like to believe he has an open relationship with Beth, when in fact he is simply adept at talking his way back into her good graces.
More subplots bubble up around Tamara; it would be distracting if the characters weren’t so vividly rendered. Beth strikes up a friendship with the visiting writer and self-described “loser’s loser” Glen (Bill Camp), and all of the shifting affections and bed-hopping are overseen by a couple of bored, bratty teenage girls (Jessica Barden and Charlotte Christie). The laughs are light, but not in the mild, dotty manner of the worst recent British comedies; the script has a gently amused but none too soft view of human nature.
It’s nicely shot and assembled by Frears, but you may get the sense that even he considers it a minor distraction; he doesn’t participate in the commentary track, leaving it to Arterton and Evans, and seems vaguely uncomfortable during the DVD’s most interesting feature, “Reconstructing Tamara Drewe”, which explains how the filmmakers used the graphic novel as inspiration. Frears frames some shots just like a comic, making sparing but clever use of split-screens to resemble panels, but also points out differences—the comic was used as a guide but not a blueprint.
The movie doesn’t have an overtly comic-book look, then, a la Dick Tracy or The Hulk, but it does pop like one. Arterton is a thin starlet, of course, but there’s something striking and comic-strippy about her form. When “poured”, as one character mutters, into cutoffs early on (a brief scene that nonetheless made an obvious impression on the filmmakers; it served as the film’s poster image), she looks broad, almost imposing. Arterton, alongside Frears on the “Reconstructing” feature, reveals the subtle visual appeal of her performance (apart from the cutoffs): she often imitated the simple, expressive facial expressions found in the original Simmonds drawings.
Like so many screwball-inspired movies, Tamara Drewe could’ve withstood a snappier pace. Even its flights of inspiration wear a little thin after 95 minutes or so, and the movie fades off without much consequence. But its retro shades don’t feel regressive; in fact, with its attention to gossip rags and email scandals, the film feels slightly, sweetly current. If it’s a lark for Frears, it’s one worth his time, and ours.