The return of a native-born femme to the rural village she grew up in stirs up dormant longings, resulting in romantic muddle and stampeding cows in amusing social comedy “Tamara Drewe.” Adapted from a comicstrip-turned-graphic novel by Posy Simmonds, which was itself based on Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd,” pic reps a satirical but soft-biting swipe at contempo middle-class mores among Blighty’s chattering countryside classes. Told with bold comic brushstrokes by helmer Stephen Frears, more in “Mrs. Henderson Presents” form than “The Queen,” this Sony Pictures Classics release should draw B.O. earnings on the former’s scale, performing best domestically.
In the English village of Ewedown (presumably not far from London, though locations used are in Dorset), long-suffering middle-aged Beth Hardiment (an excellent Tamsin Greig) runs a farmstead-cum-writers retreat while also ministering dutifully to the needs of her self-important husband Nicholas (Roger Allam), a successful crime novelist and serial cheater.
When once-local girl Tamara Drewe (suddenly ubiquitous Gemma Arterton) moves back to Ewedown to fix up then sell the home she grew up in, everyone is stunned by how she’s changed from a gawky schoolgirl into sex-bomb newspaper columnist over the years, thanks to a bit of experience and rhinoplasty.
Tamara hires her old flame Andy Cobb (Luke Evans), Beth’s hunky gardener, to do up the house Tamara inherited from her recently deceased mother. Attraction sparks between them again, but girl-about-town Tamara takes up instead with Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper), a drummer-songwriter who’s just ankled his indie band, and he soon moves in with her. Ben is the favorite pin-up of two bored local teens, Jody Long and Casey Shaw (Jessica Barden and Charlotte Christie, respectively, both overacting a little too much), whose mischievous antics advance the plot. However, Tamara has never quite gotten over her youthful crush on Nicholas, who’s soon at a mistress-free loose end.
Those familiar with Hardy’s work will be tickled with Simmonds’ and screenwriter Moira Buffini’s deft contempo resetting of the story, which adds a wry comic spin most definitely not in the original. They uncover a rural world still tinged by class conflict, only these days servicing second homes for “banker wankers” from London and specialized tourism.
Pic’s teeming cast of supporting and minor characters rep a chuckle-inducing rogue’s gallery of exaggerated types, including a horsey, Barbour-jacketed gentlewoman (Susan Wooldridge); a brittle, lipstick-lesbian crime novelist (Bronagh Gallagher); and a woolly academic with a good heart (Bill Camp, charming), the last enjoying a somewhat bigger part as a potential love interest for the put-upon Beth.
Nevertheless, the plot is just faithful enough to the spirit of Hardy’s frequently tragic universe to slip in a death for at least one major character, though this stroke of black humor sits a little ill in such a hitherto sunny story. Frears just about smooths over the tonal transition, but there’s a certain patchiness throughout. The perfs don’t always mesh together, and the plotlines feel occasionally frayed (perhaps the result of a too-brutal editing process which makes the last act feel rushed). At least a constant stream of tart one-liners somewhat papers the cracks.
Tech contributions are best-of-British solid but not outstanding.