Tamara Drewe is a film with an interesting literary pedigree. It is based on the graphic novel of the same title by the British cartoonist Posy Simmonds, originally serialized in The Guardian in 2005. Simmonds's inspiration for a contemporary work about adultery in Dorset was Thomas Hardy's 1874 novel Far from the Madding Crowd, a tale of romantic entanglements set in the same bucolic part of southwestern England.
Stephen Frears, remembered most recently for directing Helen Mirren in The Queen, and screenwriter Moira Buffini have taken Simmonds's episodic and observational novel and given it a tighter focus and more romantic plot while preserving enough of its dark wit and black comedy to make this often delicious film rise above the usual rom-com. Its chief problem is a title character who is more plot device than personality.
On a working farm, handmaiden Beth (Tamsin Greig) runs a writers' colony with her husband, the bestselling mystery novelist Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam), who plays star attraction for her paying guests. She breeds goats and bakes scones, manages his appearances and answers his fan letters, while her self-satisfied husband scampers up to London to visit his latest conquest. As the film opens, the conquest in question decides to come down to Dorset: "You said you wanted to be with me," she whines. "Yes," he replies. "In London. Now and then."
He quickly dumps the inconvenient young thing, the long-suffering wife forgives him and all would settle back into routine were it not for the appearance of the long-absent Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton). The daughter of a recently deceased neighbour, she was once an ugly duckling with a big nose - shown in flashback, it's a schnoz worthy of Cyrano. Now, she's a hot London newspaper columnist with a perky little snub who has come to sell off her mother's house.
The two men who rejected the teenage Tamara, Nicholas and the virile and sympathetic farmhand Andy (Luke Evans), are immediately attracted to her and a romantic through-line emerges. Clearly, Tamara should wind up with Andy, and salvation for Beth seems to take the shape of a visiting American Hardy scholar (Bill Camp), who's suffering from writer's block.
You know where you're going in territory that's actually more Jane Austen than Hardy, but Frears makes the most of the many bumps and twists, among them a spoiled rock-star fiancé (Dominic Cooper) for Tamara and a couple of celebrity-obsessed teens who meddle with her e-mail.
The director draws wonderful ensemble work from the cast. As the young rock star and the aging novelist, Cooper and Allam offer perfectly crafted bookends of male and artistic privilege. At least the insufferable Nicholas gets the reward he so richly deserves and an ending worthy of one of his own crime novels.
But roles like these are a gift to actors. What is more notable is Greig's work as the unnoted Beth, subtly capturing the mix of self-delusion and bitter realism in the adulterer's helpmate.
Arterton's work as Tamara is less satisfying: Frears has cast her as a romantic heroine rather than as Simmonds's more ambiguous figure, and he has not fully resolved her motivations. Why is this driven woman going to bed with such louts? Revenge is one possibility, but Frears doesn't really explore it - he and Arterton could have given Tamara a much sharper edge without detracting from the ending.
Similarly, Frears and Buffini carefully avoid the nastier corners of their own script - in particular pulling back from the potential disasters that might befall those meddling teens, hinting briefly at a brutal comeuppance before defusing it with comedy. Better never to have hinted in the first place: Simmonds's work is far darker, but most of the time Frears successfully navigates the brighter territory he has chosen. The cows may stampede in Tamara Drewe, but there is nothing here to frighten the horses.
Written by Moira Buffini
Directed by Stephen Frears
Starring Gemma Arterton, Roger Allam and Tamsin Greig