The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of ‘Tamara Drewe’ was for the “In Theatres” section of The Parallax Review.
by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor
Stephen Frears has proved to be a consistent and versatile director in his long career. Moving comfortably from crime dramas to romantic comedies to westerns to period pieces, he has had some great career highs with films like Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity, and Dirty Pretty Things and very few outright misfires (Mary Reilly). Unfortunately, ‘Tamara Drewe’ comes very close to falling in the misfire category.
Based on the graphic novels by Posy Simmonds, the story is a very loose updating of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. Set in a rural English village, the film follows the titular character (Gemma Arterton) as she returns to her childhood home with the intention of fixing it up and selling it. A beauty with a glamorous job as a newspaper columnist, a life-changing nose job, and a plan to turn the locals into characters in a novel, she immediately sets about causing havoc among the denizens of a local writing retreat.
In many ways, the characters at the retreat are more interesting than Tamara. Nicholas (Roger Allam) is a bestselling crime novelist who habitually cheats on his wife, Beth (Tamsin Greig). Beth is the long-suffering sort who runs the retreat, types all of her husband’s work, and acts as his initial editor. Andy (Luke Evans) is the hunky handyman and gardener who was Tamara’s teenage boyfriend. Glen (Bill Camp) is an American academic writing a book about the life of Thomas Hardy.
Tamara’s return affects them all in different ways. Andy immediately finds himself reliving their wild teenage romance and his regrets at ever breaking up with her. Nicholas remembers the awkward teenager with the large nose who once made a clumsy pass at him. The adult version of Tamara awakens thoughts of straying from his marriage, yet again. Beth sees the way that her husband looks at Tamara and grows concerned. She has confronted Nicholas numerous times over his affairs, but always takes him back. But this seems to be the first time that he has blatantly pursued another woman in front of her. Glen, nursing a crush on Beth, also sees the way Nicholas looks at Tamara and gently prods Beth not to trust her husband, using examples from Thomas Hardy’s life to explain how men who cheat will always cheat.
As can be surmised from this description, the film is very much intended to be a comedy of manners and mores — except most of the comedy has been forgotten. There are a few chuckles present but, despite a persistently light tone, most of the humor falls flat. This gives the film an odd feel as the cast delivers dialogue as though it is the height of dry wit, while everything they say comes out as slightly rude or outright mean.
Even with the failed attempts at humor, the stories of the supporting characters are still involving. I found myself rooting for Glen and Beth to get together and for Andy to get over Tamara and move on with his life. But what of Tamara, the character who is supposed to be so interesting that the film is named after her?
As played by Arterton, Tamara is a complete enigma. She’s smart, beautiful, and not above using her looks to get what she wants. She’s also vindictive, petty, and prone to monumentally bad decisions. I realize that these traits are taken from the heroine of Hardy’s novel, but Frears is not adapting the novel. Unfortunately, he chooses to force other parallels to the novel in the film: Some characters are punished with tragic ends that far outweigh their crimes, while others are given happy endings that are undeserved. Even worse, the climax and resolution just further drive home the misplaced tone of forced whimsy that the film practically drowns in.
Despite good performances from Greig, Cobb, Camp, and Allam, the film just isn’t worth watching. Too much time is spent trying to keep several balls in the air and make the audience sympathize with a protagonist who just isn’t sympathetic. ‘Tamara Drewe’ is hardly the worst film I’ve seen this year, but it’s certainly one of the more disappointing.
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