For all the familiar ground it covers, “Tamara Drewe” seems refreshingly like a rarity. It’s a film about writers that’s not too inwardly verbal; a black comedy that’s not too cruel; an ensemble piece that’s not too diffuse; an adaptation of a graphic novel that’s not too callow; and in fact a maturely made revelry about adults falling short of maturity. That’s all very unusual. Also, it’s nice that there’s still something inherently amusing in a sex comedy full of doughy middle-aged English people.
Gemma Arterton stars as the eponymous recovering ugly duckling who comes home to the countryside with a nose job and a new sense of herself. And as soon as she hops the fence in her tank top and Daisy Dukes, we look forward to the genteel hell that’ll break loose at the bucolic writers’ retreat on the next farm over. Denizens there include a complacent, philandering crime novelist (Roger Allam) and his magnanimous den-mother wife (Tamsin Greig), a constipated American literary scholar (Bill Camp), and the hunky gardener (Luke Evans) who once was Tamara’s boy next door. Also, there are the interlopers: a moody rock star (Dominic Cooper) and a pair of bored, prank-pulling teenagers (Jessica Barden and Charlotte Christie) who serve, rather proactively, as the story’s chorus.
The structure seems faintly classical, and as literary as you care to notice. Moira Buffini’s script adapts Posy Simmonds graphic novel, itself a clever turn on Thomas Hardy’s novel “Far From the Madding Crowd.” With a few well-managed exceptions, Hardy’s heavy gloom has mostly been dissipated. The result is not archly tragic so much as situationist and true enough to life: comeuppance seems both inevitable and accidental. The performances are great — enjoyed, lived-in.
We may think we know this as Woody Allen territory (even, nowadays, the part about being in England), and he might have given the same material a few more sparkles than do here catch the eye — but maybe also a more prosaic, dulling gloss. Director Stephen Frears, on the other hand, is right for this job if for no other reason than his willingness to assay a potentially deadened artifact — an adaptation of an adaptation — with such ruddy verve.
Even when Frears plays broadly, for farce, it’s with a mitigating ironic wit. Even the occasional eye-roll moments in “Tamara Drewe” seem strangely necessary, as if designed to calibrate the audience with just enough detachment to appreciate the overall absurdity. It’s a delicate stance: neither above it all, nor beneath us.
And if this director makes it look easy, it must be in part from his years of focused practice. As in “Dangerous Liaisons” or “The Grifters” or “High Fidelity,” there is the nimble social observation. As in “The Queen,” there is the inner life of a woman in charge. And as in most Frears films, there is no sense of the story being subordinated to auteurist ego-strokes. You know a film is his not for any gimmick of style but because it’s alive and worth watching — because he has a way of getting greatness from actors without seeming to want credit for it.
It’s accurate, but unfairly diminishing, to label “Tamara Drewe” as deceptively light. Arguably it’s as unmemorable as so many of the year’s other movies have been, but with the crucial distinction of not pretending otherwise.