“Tamara Drewe” is a sex farce and a bucolic romp with Stephen Frears at the wheel and Thomas Hardy at the core, and when its story material is as light as the breezy mood that Frears sustains, the movie is a comic pleasure.
Unfortunately, tonal incongruities develop and substantially undermine the film as the plot darkens.
Adapted by screenwriter Moira Buffini from the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds (which is based on Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd”), this cerebral-carnal cocktail transpires in the English countryside, where obscenely successful novelist and incorrigible philanderer Nick Hardiment (Roger Allam) and his long-suffering wife, Beth (Tamsin Greig), run a farm that doubles as a writers’ retreat.
Joining them is Glen McCreavy (Bill Camp), an American scholar who, while struggling with his study of Hardy, is drawn to the supportive Beth. Also on site is Andy (Luke Evans), a financially unlucky gardener.
Decorum crumbles when Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton), a London journalist, returns to the village to oversee the sale of her childhood house and promptly ignites libidos and shakes up lives.
Sporting denim cutoffs and a new nose, the glamorous Tamara, whose old proboscis yielded the moniker “Beaky,” flummoxes the townsfolk by romancing churlish drummer Ben (Dominic Cooper). She also gets involved with serial cheater Nick.
These affairs irk Andy, who is Tamara’s old flame, and rile two bored teenagers (Jessica Barden, Charlotte Christie). The latter have crushes on Ben and scheme to destroy his relationship with Tamara.
Lies, jealousies, misunderstandings, machinations and a cattle stampede add up to disaster, after which the key characters display a clearer sense of where, and with whom, they belong.
The movie isn’t without pizzazz.
Frears, a skilled veteran whose credits include “Dangerous Liaisons” and “The Queen,” advances the multistranded plot smoothly, and Hardy fans will enjoy the references.
The passages that poke fun at writers, with their petty jealousies and insecurities, are observantly funny. The scenes featuring the two schoolgirls are stellar.
The problem, however, is that the story, which includes a gruesome death, is a tonal ragbag. It also grows increasingly dark, while Frears keeps his directorial tone sunny and buoyant and stays close to the surface.
The result is an amusing but often misfiring movie with ingredients that don’t quite congeal and whose characters aren’t portrayed deeply enough for viewers to care about their happiness.
Among the cast, standouts include Allam, Greig, Camp and the rather amazing Barden. Rising star Arterton is hampered, as was Michelle Pfeiffer in Frears’ “Cheri,” by a role defined largely by its cosmetic aspects.
Tamara Drewe ??½
Starring Gemma Arterton, Roger Allam, Tamsin Greig, Bill Camp
Written by Moira Buffini
Directed by Stephen Frears
Running time 1 hour, 41 minutes