Among the delicious reasons to see Stephen Frears’s Tamara Drewe is the spectacle of the movie’s most mendacious and manipulative character getting his comeuppance—a punishment that has been diligently foreshadowed and yet is so shockingly grotesque when it comes barreling down on him as to have you both gasping and hooting with laughter. Another highlight is Gemma Arterton—every inch of her, but in particular her thighs, which seem to be as much natural wonders as products of hard labor in the gym. (When she jumps over a fence, they jiggle ever so slightly.) A judicious comic actor, Arterton plays the eponymous Tamara, who throws a small English village into a tizzy when she returns from London to put the family cottage on the market. As a teenager, Tamara was burdened by a schnoz as big as Jimmy Durante’s, but thanks to a nose job the proportions of her face are now as perfect as those of her body and she’s glorying in the power her beauty gives her over men.
Adapting Posy Simmonds’s comic strip (later a graphic novel) that British readers of The Guardian describe as either based on Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd or the venerable 60-year-old radio rural soap opera The Archers or both, Frears and screenwriter Moira Buffini keep the slightly exaggerated visual style of the comic and also its complicated characters, all of them driven by conflicting needs and desires that they barely comprehend. But they’ve also sharpened the satire and tightened the plot so that the film trips lightly about the sleepy countryside, barely pausing for breath.
There are two interlocking storylines. One involves Tamara and her various lovers: Dominic (Ben Sargeant), a rock-star drummer with a large, pure-bred, ill-mannered boxer whom he dotes on and who becomes the narrative’s deus ex machina; Nicholas (Roger Allam), a middle-aged mystery writer and compulsive womanizer; and Andy (Luke Evans), who has loved Tamara since childhood even though his family was forced to sell their house to Tamara’s when they could no longer afford to farm. Andy is a handsome lug—a farmhand out of D.H. Lawrence’s imagination—and the opening shot of him alone in a field, lofting a log-splitter as if it weighed a mere few ounces, immediately sets the slightly absurd, more-sweet-than-sour tone of the satire.
Nicholas and his tolerant-to-a-fault wife Beth (Tamsin Greig) run a writer’s colony down the road from Tamara’s cottage, and the complications of Nicholas’s promiscuity and the competitive relationship that Glen (Bill Camp), one of the guest writers, develops with him is as amusing—although not as alluring—as the bedroom farce taking place on the Drewe premises. Glen, who can’t get past the first page of his biographical study of Hardy, takes Nicholas’s ability to churn out one thriller after another as a personal affront, not to mention that he has designs on Beth, who distractedly tends to the guest writers in much the way she does her prize chickens.
The female characters are far more attractive and interesting than the male, and that includes a pair of foul-mouthed, rock-star obsessed adolescent girls (Jessica Barden and Casey Shaw) who graduate from egging cars to gumming up Tamara’s love life because they want Dominic for themselves. In fact, none of the men deserve the women they have or want, which is true of most movies these days. But the entire cast, regardless of gender, is stellar. A word of caution to creative types: after seeing Tamara Drewe, you will never entertain the possibility of going to an artist colony again.