“Far from the madding crowd” reads the ad for writers’ retreats at a charming manor in the English countryside. If that’s not enough of a hint, one of the guests is an academic penning a juicy biography of Thomas Hardy, 19th century novelist, poet and horndog.
The sunny, sexy, sublimely funny “Tamara Drewe” transforms Hardy’s pastoral weepie into a contemporary romp. Go through your mental checklist of what you want in a romantic comedy-drama: novel plotting, characters to care about, witty dialogue, bull’s-eye casting, nimble direction, green and pleasant locales, a lack of falling-in-love montages – “Tamara Drewe” has it all.
The story echoes Hardy’s. A haughty stunner arrives in a sleepy village, stirring up passions, rivalries, envy and trouble in her wake. Since Tamara is played by the luminous Gemma Arterton, we see immediately why her suitors begin acting on their animal natures. So do dogs, schoolgirls and cattle, with tragicomic consequences. Mostly comic – the film is about 80 percent happiness and 20 percent pain – Tamara, remembered by the locals as a neurotic girl with a massive schnoz, returns to her childhood home a London newspaper columnist with a gorgeously remodeled profile. Working her sex appeal like a 4-turned-10, she dazzles former boyfriend Andy (Luke Evans), philandering landowner Nicholas (Roger Allam, playing the cad with consummate relish) and Ben (Dominic Cooper), an obnoxious pop star. Under the golden light of an English summer, multiple romances blossom as Tamara rehabs her parents’ house for sale. The place becomes a lovers’ getaway, scandalizing the villagers, giving the writers’ group plenty of material to fuel their imaginations and throwing two snoopy teens (Jessica Barden and Charlotte Christie) into frenzies of jealousy and romantic sabotage.
The film has a dry, ironic fondness for even the worst of its characters. Nicholas, the glib, condescending mystery novelist who owns the writers’ getaway, is the closest to a cartoon. He’s mean to his meek, fluttering spouse, scarcely bothering to hide his infidelities. (Tamsin Greig is great as the wife. Her delicate cheekbones, nervous lips and slightly misty brown eyes are so gently appealing that you feel your heart break a little every time she drifts into view.) Yet even scheming Nicholas is capable of kind bedroom intimacies and fleeting thoughts of commitment to just one woman. Posy Simmons and director Stephen Frears satirize their characters but never patronize.
Tamara and her lovers are central to the story, but as in a painted landscape, much of the interest is in the background. There are plum roles pretty far down the cast list. As the spying schoolgirls, Barden and Christie are eager and effervescent, even as they are thoughtlessly destructive. Bill Camp, an Obie-winning American actor, has a fine supporting role as Glen, the Hardy scholar who sees through Nicholas’ elaborately plotted deceptions. With not much to do except listen and react, Camp crafts a rounded character, mixing comic pratfalls with real pathos.
Frears smoothly shifts through tonal changes that would strip many a story’s gears. “Tamara Drewe” glides effortlessly from slapstick to subtle personal drama, moves on to romance and sorrow and bounces back to buoyant optimism and comic affirmation. The secret is in little details that seem organic rather than plotted. A throwaway gag about Glen’s fear of cows pays off in the final stretch; the design of a dog collar subtly telegraphs a couple of big surprises. A long shot of a burial scene turns out to be something other than what we expected when the camera moves closer.
The effect is of life being observed in all its chaotic complexity by a filmmaker with an ironic but affectionate view of human frailties.