A romp in the countryside
No one combines literature and sex like the British. All that class repression makes for good healthy shagging, as the urge for proper wordplay wars with barnyard desire and almost always loses. The airy country comedy “Tamara Drewe’’ gets right into the ruts and starts mucking about, and if the movie doesn’t add up to much, it may be because modern audiences and filmmakers alike aren’t sure what to do with a perfectly nice heroine who does fancy a screw.
The movie stars Gemma Arterton, a young British actress who has survived overblown Hollywood fantasies like “Clash of the Titans’’ and “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time’’ — at the very least, she deserves a stay-at-home vacation. Her character, Tamara Drewe, arrives back in her childhood Dorset hamlet of Ewedown with a new nose, a suitcase full of short-shorts, and a glamorous career as a London newspaper columnist. Across the fields from her family home is Stonefield, a writer’s retreat full of tweedy authors and would-be authors — an excellent ant colony for Tamara to stir up.
Stonefield is owned by Nicholas (Roger Allam), an imperious and very successful writer of detective fiction; his wife Beth (Tamsin Greig) keeps the place running and passive-aggressively ignores her husband’s womanizing. The retreat’s caretaker, Andy (Luke Evans), is a strapping hunk of Dorset beef whose family once owned Tamara’s manse and who studiously tries to ignore the teenage fling the two had back when her nose was immense.
Other characters mill genially about: An American academic (Bill Camp) blocked on his Thomas Hardy biography and nursing a crush on Beth; a sneering British rock star (Dominic Cooper) happy to be Tamara’s latest boy toy; two teen girls, Jody (Jessica Barden) and Casey (Charlotte Christie), who are bored bored BORED and up to no good; a comely pub owner (Josie Taylor); the rocker’s dog. Everyone keeps banging into each other, the farcical complications build, and when director Stephen Frears isn’t sure what to do, he sends cinematographer Ben Davis out to frame breathtaking shots of the countryside. Frears has made everything from “My Beautiful Laundrette’’ to “High Fidelity’’ to “The Queen’’; this is a vacation for him, too.
The movie’s based on an odd combination of graphic novel and serialized novelette by Posy Simmonds that ran in weekly installments in England’s The Guardian; Simmonds, in turn, based her tale very loosely on Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd.’’ The comic’s a tricky work to adapt, and Frears hasn’t entirely pulled it off. It may be that all the bedroom friskiness carries increased moral weight on screen, but Tamara seems more home wrecker than charmer by the final act. Miscasting plays a part, too: Allam is a fine actor who lacks the sexual charisma Nicholas needs if we’re to believe some of the plot twists.
The graphic novel took a climactic turn for the grim that screenwriter Moira Buffini eases back on without eliminating and that furthers the sense of slightly balmy narrative disarray. Not that a comedy shouldn’t deal in darkness, but the shifts in tone that might work in weekly installments play as mere clutter when encountered one after another. “Tamara Drewe’’ is a frolic that keeps tripping over its own gorgeous feet.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.