Monday, December 6, 2010

Tamara Drewe: Draw your own conclusions

Tamara Drewe (2010) • View trailer for Tamara Drewe
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, nudity and sexuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.3.10

Not long into director Stephen Frears’ big-screen handling of Tamara Drewe, Posy Simmonds’ rather viciously snarky graphic novel, we get a telling remark from the character we’re encouraged to loathe the most: condescending pop-fiction author Nicholas Hardiment, played to snobbish perfection by Roger Allam:

“All storytellers are liars and thieves.”
We can't see who everybody is looking at -- that would be Tamara -- but her
entrance certainly has a dramatic impact. The key players in this cheerfully
bent little drama include, from left, Glen (Bill Camp), Nicholas (Roger Allam)
and, in foreground, Beth (Tamsin Greig).

Keep that comment in mind, as this film works rather languidly toward its conclusion, because Tamara Drewe isn’t a story that rewards good behavior. Cheaters DO prosper in this rather caustic little saga, and that can prove unsettling.

At first blush, Frears’ film – scripted by Moira Buffini – feels like a slice of rural British whimsy, in the same vein as 1995’s Cold Comfort Farm or 2000’s The Closer You Get. All the elements are in place: a very small community, a core setting with plenty of eccentric characters – in this case, a “writers colony” run by Hardiment and his wife, Beth (Tamsin Greig), on their farming land, Stonefield – and an underlying current of earthy sexuality that constantly threatens to burst into voluptuous bloom.

And, for a great stretch, that’s precisely the way things proceed. The action takes place during a single year in the quaint, quiet village of Ewedown, with significant events divided into chapters according to season; we begin one summer and conclude the following spring. Nicholas and Beth host half a dozen or so writers per season; they come to this isolated setting in order to have nothing to do but write. Most are hopeless cases without a prayer of ever getting published, who hang onto Nicholas’ every statement as if each were one of God’s commandments to writers … little realizing that their host’s pithy observations are veiled put-downs.

As the story begins, only one of this particular gaggle of writers will be important: Glen (Bill Camp), a displaced American professor on sabbatical, who is making a last-ditch effort to complete a book on Thomas Hardy. Alas, Glen is as constipated in mind as he is in body: equally unsuccessful at putting words on paper, as he is, ah, emptying his digestive system. Which, of course, he discusses.

Stonefield’s lovely, secluded farm and gardens are tended by Andy Cobb (Luke Evans), a handsome “son of the soil” who respects and enjoys working the land, but also is far smarter – and more perceptive – than most folks give him credit for.

Ewedown’s various goings-on – and there aren’t many, which is precisely the point – are observed, dissected and contemptuously dismissed by bored teenagers Jody (Jessica Barden) and Casey (Charlotte Christie), who serve as this story’s foul-mouthed Greek chorus. And I do mean foul; Jody has a mouth that would make a dockworker blush, and her spiteful, vindictive behavior – “acting out” in the extreme, thanks to a truly empty home life – constantly skirts the ragged edge of various felonies. The somewhat more sensitive Casey is the tag-along, mostly because, well, Ewedown doesn’t offer any other girls her own age.

Matters take a far more interesting turn with the arrival of Tamara (Gemma Arterton), a onetime Ewedown resident known – as a schoolgirl – for her large and beaky nose. Tamara fled to big, bad London at earliest opportunity, secured a nose job and became a successful newspaper columnist. She has returned to Ewedown to fix up and sell Winnards, the farm adjacent to Stonefield, following her mother’s death.

Winnards’ ownership history actually is a bit complicated; it once was Andy’s ancestral home, but his hard-up parents were forced to sell to the Drewes, a posh London family that used the place as a summer home. Despite this, Andy and Tamara were an item back in the day, but at a crucial moment he failed to live up to her expectations.

Tamara’s reappearance has the erotic thunderclap of Aphrodite descending from Olympus: absolutely a calculated entrance. She climbs the fence and sashays into the middle of a gathering at Stonefield, barefoot and clad only in a thin, tight red top and jeans shorts cut far above the boundaries of propriety. Her impact on the assembled would-be writers is distracting, to say the least: mostly to the philandering Nicholas, whose long-ago feelings of lust toward Tamara are re-awakened by this newly “beakless” vision of beauty before him.

Matters … become complicated.

Tamara insists that Andy help her get Winnards ready for sale, knowing full well how this act – not to mention her fetching proximity – will affect her former lover. She subsequently takes up with a gnarly rock star, a drummer named Ben (Dominic Cooper) who quits his band in a fit of pique and joins Tamara at Winnards, complete with his friendly but ill-behaved boxer dog.

This comes as horrible news to the miserable Jody, who has pined for Ben forever (six months), and has plastered his pictures all over her room. Jody plots ever-more-scandalous revenge, little realizing how her behavior will impact everybody else in the village.

Andy takes out his frustrations by indulging in meaningless sex with the cheerfully compliant local barmaid.

The resulting bouillabaisse of torrid emotions rises to a boil, and … well, that would be telling. But I’ll say this much: Each of the characters who wins our sympathies – chiefly Tamara, Beth, Andy and Glen – eventually behaves in a manner that is at odds with this film’s otherwise frothy tone. The atmosphere of small-town British whimsy notwithstanding, Frears cuts ever closer to the bone, and we eventually wind up with a parable that feels much closer to the frustrations and disappointments of real life.

At the same time, the film is deliberately stylized and precious: quite appropriate, given that Simmonds’ graphic novel is, itself, inspired by Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. (Indeed, it would be captivating to set up a double-bill of this film with director John Schlesinger’s 1967 adaptation of that Hardy classic, which helped make Julie Christie a star.)

We’re tipped off to the nature of this tale early on, upon learning that Tamara’s name is pronounced tuh-MAR-uh: clearly an affectation, like so much else in this story.

Arterton makes a properly coy and sensuous protagonist: a woman fully aware of her actions, and yet still able to step back and reflect upon the wisdom of choices made. It’s frankly refreshing to see this actress in material with more substance than the eye-candy she played in both Clash of the Titans and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. (Come to think of it, she was quite memorable, albeit in a small role, in the James Bond film Quantum of Solace.) Tamara isn’t always easy to like, but Arterton’s charm and flinty intelligence make it difficult to dislike her.

Grieg’s Beth actually is this story’s most complex character, and her performance is impressively subtle; watch her eyes and face, as autumn yields to winter and then spring, and her suspicions about her husband’s roving eye are aroused anew.

Barden and Christie are magnificently horrid as Jody and Casey, both young actresses chewing up their roles with gusto. We can’t help but hate them, and yet … well, it’s not that simple.

Cooper is every inch the self-absorbed rock star, and Camp’s Glen is a hilarious object of pity; the man is afraid of cows, for goodness’ sake. As for Allam, well, I said it at the top: Nicholas is the guy whose life we want to see wrecked … but maybe not. After all, the long-suffering Beth would be caught in the fallout.

Filming took place at a pair of country estates in Dorset, and Ben Davis’ cinematography is as lush as the setting. Alexandre Desplat contributes a lyrical orchestral score that echoes the film’s shifts in tone: cheerfully effervescent in the first act, but with increasingly serious undertones as the story progresses.

We can’t help being captivated by all these characters, even with – indeed, because of – their eccentricities. But not everybody will be comfortable with the story’s costume change, as the light and airy atmosphere becomes increasingly tense and brittle. As to whether Tamara and the others wind up with what they desire, as opposed to what they deserve … well, Hardy would have smiled and approved. But I’m not sure that this film can succeed as mainstream entertainment, as opposed to being a caustic literary pastiche best appreciated by (eek!) the sort of snooty academics so ruthlessly indicted here by Allam’s Nicholas Hardiment.

1 comment:

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