Tamara Drewe, a bustling country comedy, achieves the goal of both invoking a certain English literary tradition and lightly satirizing our nostalgia for it. It's a loose updating of Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd—a loose, clangorous and often imaginative updating in the fashion of Clueless, Amy Heckerling's gloss on Jane Austen's Emma.
Adapted by screenwriter Moira Buffini from a series of comic strips that Posy Simmonds created for the London Guardian, Tamara Drewe opens in the impossibly photogenic countryside of County Dorset in the southwest of England, a land of misty morning pasture and narrow roads and small villages with a single pub.
On the outskirts of the fictitious village of Ewedown is a small farm that is run as a writer's retreat by Beth and Nicholas Hardiment. Nicholas (Roger Allam) is a successful, prolific author of pseudo-literary murder novels, while the long-suffering Beth (Tamsin Greig) busies herself with farm chores, cooking and cleaning, while also typing and editing her husband's manuscripts. She also endures repeated humiliations in the face of Nicholas' serial infidelities.
We meet these characters, along with the would-be authors living with them, before we meet the film's heroine, who moves into a nearby estate. This film's version of Hardy's uppity, delightfully named Bathsheba Everdene, Tamara is an aspiring writer who returns to the rustic, dilapidated home of her childhood having changed in two important ways: She's achieved a modicum of journalistic celebrity; and she's had a nose job that transformed her Cyrano-esque proboscis into a sleek, pert little thing. Following the outline of the Hardy novel, Tamara has three suitors in the film: the ever-priapic Nicholas; a disgruntled rock drummer (Dominic Cooper, committed and effective); and her boyhood sweetheart (Luke Evans), who is now toiling as an honorably poor laborer.
This love rhombus never builds up much heat, but fortunately, other bits of business in the story save the film. The biggest problem is Gemma Arterton, the dull actress who plays Tamara. Arterton is pretty, yes, but also pretty vacant. She seems as if she—like her character—has had a nose job that also somehow cut off all affect from her face. While it's not hard to believe that the men in the film would ogle her backside—as Frears' camera does—Arterton doesn't bring any intellectual sparkle to a role that cries out for the likes of Emily Blunt (or even Keira Knightley, who performed similar labors in Pride and Prejudice)—who could have brought intelligence and sass with the sexiness. Instead, we have an actress better suited for playing robo-beauties in CGI-dominated films like Clash of the Titans and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, to name two of Arterton's recent titles.
Thankfully, the film does feature a young actress who ends up walking off with the damn thing. Jessica Barden plays Jody, a scrawny 15-year-old town hellion who is hilariously foul-mouthed and aggressive as she and her sidekick Casey (Charlotte Christie, also delightful) scheme to win the rock drummer away from Tamara. There's not a clear analogue to this role in the Hardy novel; instead, Jody is reminiscent of a character that often appears in the plays of the contemporary English dramatist and filmmaker Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, The Cripple of Inishmaan): the acid-tongued, egg-hurling but deeply needy small-town girl.
Frears' ostensible heroine turns out to be a stiff, so he smartly ends (and saves) his film with an apotheosis of this phenomenally entertaining youngster.