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Tragicomic Tamara Drewe is one big Thomas Hardy in-joke

Ah, coincidence. When British cartoonist Posy Simmonds based a comic strip (and 1999 graphic novel) on Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, she changed the heroine's name from Emma Bovary to Gemma Bovery. When Stephen Frears turned a later Simmonds strip into his 2010 film Tamara Drewe (2010), he gave the title role to an actress named Gemma.

But then, coincidence looms large in Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd, the inspiration for Tamara Drewe. In Hardy's novel, a shepherd whose fortunes have fallen seeks a job with a wealthy landowner who turns out to be his former love, Bathsheba. In the movie, a labourer named Andy Cobb (Luke Evans), who years ago spurned the love of a young, big-nosed Tamara (Gemma Arterton), is surprised when she returns to Dorset from London as a successful journalist with a much smaller nose. She hires him to renovate the house she has inherited - a house once owned by his family.

Hardy in-jokes are everywhere. In the original, a sergeant impressed Bathsheba with the deft handling of his sword. In the movie, rock drummer Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper, who must have borrowed Adam Lambert's guy-liner) impresses Tamara with the handling of his drumsticks. But just as Simmonds took only what she needed from Hardy, so Frears and screenwriter Moira Buffini leave some of Simmonds's reworkings behind, including the death of one of two meddling schoolgirls. (The celebrity-obsessed girls, reminiscent of those in the 1964 film The World of Henry Orient, have had their parts expanded from the strip.)

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Tamara Drewe opens in the sun-dappled English countryside. Rumpled pulp novelist Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam) and wife Beth (Tamsin Greig) run a rural retreat for writers, the ultimate in bed-and-breakfast pampering. To be precise, Beth runs it. Nicholas is more concerned with bedding anything that moves. She forgives him; he promises not to reoffend; he reoffends, with a smugness that begs for a wallop. ("I'm always taking you for granted. I'm vile, I know. You should kick me, really.") Tamara's arrival shakes up the place, as the handyman, the novelist and the drummer step into the shoes of the three suitors in Far from the Madding Crowd.

Beyond Hardy, there are echoes of The Canterbury Tales. Most of the minor characters are pilgrims, seeking peace and inspiration at the retreat. There is bawdiness, and betrayal, and other tragicomic misbehaviour familiar from Geoffrey Chaucer's classic. The characters all tell tales - tall tales, some of which come back to bite them. "Roger Allam is a genius at acting lying," Arterton notes in a feature-length commentary shared with Evans, "which is so hard - to act a lie."

As for the heroine, who exploits everyone else for the sheer sport of it, Arterton says she "didn't like Tamara at all" when she read the book. "The problem was that Tamara, unlike the other characters, doesn't voice her thoughts to anybody, because she doesn't have any friends." The challenge was to engineer moments in which the viewer could detect the lost soul within.

The film plays as a briskly paced comedy of manners, crossing easily from farce to drama and back again. "I'm feeling like I'm making a comedy and a tragedy at the same moment," Frears says. Sometimes Hardy gets his Laurel.

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