Sunday, November 21, 2010

Tamara Drewe Movie Review: Stephen Frears Attempts Classic British Farce

Gemma Arterton as Tamara Drewe makes heads turn

Stephen Frears is no stranger to directing films that find notes of humor in dark subject matter. The Hit, The Grifters, and even to some extent High Fidelity, all comfortably juxtapose the two moods. His latest film, Tamara Drewe, is an uncomfortable melding of comedy into serious drama. I’m not sure he’s entirely pulled it off here.

It’s the story of the goings-on in a small village called Ewedown in the English countryside. There, Beth and Nicholas Hardiment (Tamsin Greig and Roger Allam) run a quaint hideaway for writers from all around to get “far from the madding crowd,” as their sign out front proclaims. And wouldn’t you know it, but an American writer has taken up residence there to complete his Thomas Hardy book. As (bad) luck would have it, this little spot is also anything but far from the madding crowd. With the high jinks that go on it’s a wonder that Nicholas can manage to crank out another in a series of popular detective novels year after year. Perhaps it’s his shameless philandering with a younger woman that gets him through. The screenplay was written by Moira Buffini based on a serial comic strip by Posy Simmonds. The comic strip itself is based on Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd.

There’s also the young good-looking hunk, Andy (Luke Evans), who helps out with the gardening and manual labor, and a pair of teenage girls who entertain themselves by tossing eggs at passing cars and obsessing over Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper), the drummer and songwriter of a popular teen idol band. Ewedown is a place where nothing ever happens. But then suddenly there’s a whirlwind of fresh activity with the return of a beautiful local woman, Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton), who’s recently had a wonderful nose job. She’s gone from being the ugly duckling to the envy of all men. Heads turn when she passes by (it doesn’t help matters when she wears a hot red tank top and short denim shorts. Her arrival in town to interview Ben, who’s playing a concert nearby, sets up a confluence of circumstances that keeps Ben in town and everyone’s lives end up affected in some way.

Just about every man is jealous of Tamara and Ben’s newly sprung romance. Andy was her teenage lover, abandoned by her while he remained in the village. Nicholas was once the object of her girlish affections, but he was married (although why would that ever stop him) and unable to see beyond her incredible beak of a nose. And Glen (Bill Camp), the American writer, is too nice a guy to make any kind of lascivious advances, although he certainly admires from afar.

Greig’s performance as the put-upon Beth achieves the closest thing to pathos in the film. Every other character is so remarkably self-centered and self-involved, but Beth gives in every aspect of her life. From the first moments she is running around passing out cookies (biscuits in British English, of course) to all her resident writers. Her farm house is designed as a giving place – she provides them with the quietude to ply their trade. She is a loving wife who truly cares for her husband in spite of his disdain for the respect she shows him. She even takes him back after her comes hat in hand begging forgiveness. Even late in the film, when she has no reason at all for caring what happens to Nicholas, she is broken and distraught when she ultimately loses him for good. Beth is the rock that holds everyone together and Greig gives genuine life to her as a central character.

Tamara Drewe is like a classic British farce, but I found a lot of the laughter uncomfortable, it being borne of situations that I found far too emotionally devastating at times, as when Beth discovers her husband’s first affair. She is devastated, but the things he says are such obvious clich├ęs that it’s hard to resist the urge to chuckle at his idiocy. When he makes one particularly cringe-inducing remark she reacts by throwing a flower pot at him. By all rights, it’s a comical moment, but not a funny one in my estimation, although there was plenty of laughter in the auditorium.

These moments of palpable tension broken up by comedy build and build to set up the big finale, which is itself an event of disastrous proportions played for laughs. There is little reason for the film to end the way that it does, although admittedly it makes the resolutions cleaner. Still, it’s a bizarrely cynical ploy and executed in what I consider to be bad taste.

The film is ultimately a comedy in the Shakespearian sense in that despite mix ups and tragic circumstances everything generally works out well in the end. The hunky gardener stops brooding, the kindly American bachelor finds love and meanwhile there are those two bratty teens, still throwing eggs into people’s lives and mucking everything up.

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