Tamara Drewe, generously entertaining, is based on Posy Simmonds' graphic novel, which was inspired by Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd. (It first ran as a cartoon in the U.K.'s Guardian.) It's easy to see Hardy in the film's tricky love affairs and its English countryside setting, and one character is even writing a book about Hardy, in case anyone misses the connection.
The film also reminds me of an altogether more recent novelist, John Irving. Like an Irving book, the film has a comic, ironic snap as well as dark undercurrents of tragedy, and the many eccentric characters manage to be both nuanced and larger than life. As in an Irving novel, there are writers; there are rambling old houses; there is a brutal accident; and there are animals.
Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton) is a ravishingly gorgeous newspaper journalist. (As all newspaper journalists know, that's the only kind there is.) Her parents have passed on, and she returns from London to their country house so she can prepare to sell the old place.
Next door is another estate, this one owned by the successful crime novelist - and incorrigible philanderer - Nicholas (Roger Allam) with his matronly wife, Beth (Tamsin Greig). Nicholas spends his days in an out building, writing, while Beth oversees a colony of writers, whom she feeds delectable, organic baked goods. One of the writers is Glen (Bill Camp), the Hardy scholar, who has his eye on Beth. Beth's handyman Andy (Luke Evans), who has his eye on Tamara, grew up on what is now Tamara's place.
We see in flashbacks that Tamara wasn't ravishingly gorgeous when she was a girl, thanks mainly to a large nose that must surely be cinema's most impressive fake proboscis since Roxanne. When she shows up at a garden party in Daisy Dukes, her long legs and now-perfect nose make everyone gulp. It's a funny, sexy return of the native.
Tamara is writing a profile of an obnoxious rock musician named Ben (Dominic Cooper), and the two become an item. This enrages a couple of the village's teenage girls (Jessica Barden, Charlotte Christie), who function partly as the film's foul-mouthed Greek chorus, commenting acidly on the goings-on. (Their antics also supply a key plot point.) They love Ben, whose career they follow in trashy magazines.
There are various romantic pairings, along with unspoken yearnings and bitter asides. It's a great big story, one that unfolds over the course of a year whose seasons are announced in subtitles. Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity, My Beautiful Laundrette) tells it with wit and style. From time to time he employs flashy split-screen effects, which presumably are a nod to the graphic-novel source material.
Tamara Drewe is a sprawling comedy about our times, about class and work and writing. But to his credit, Frears doesn't underscore the satiric points. He lets these interesting characters' lives unfold, and it falls to the audience to tease out the ambiguities. In this way the film is like, that's right, a satisfying novel.