The first scene begins with admirably brawny arms glistening under a rising sun, and sets the tone for the surprisingly raunchy ‘Tamara Drewe’. The film is based on Posy Simmonds’ comic strip serial, published weekly in The Guardian, which is, in turn, loosely based on ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’. Indeed, there is no better word than ‘mad’ to describe this highly enjoyable yet slightly disturbing production. It seems at times as if the director, Stephen Frears (‘Chéri’, ‘The Queen’), had a pile of Country Life magazines in one hand and a bursting bag of LSD in the other. However, this mixture has worked well for him, particularly in the way he has managed to retain visual elements of the comic strip, such as splitting the screen when two people are on the phone, letting characters have hazy flashbacks (you can almost imagine the thought-bubbles) and, sometimes, adding in a bout of graphic violence just for good measure.
The film is set in Ewedown, a countryside backwater, and follows several characters, all dissatisfied in one way or another, whose lives are brought together by the return of Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton) to her home-town. Once a posh girl known only for her massive nose, she has come back, fully rhinoplastied and a columnist to boot, to sell her mother’s house. Her first appearance amongst the villagers creates shock and awe; Beth Hardiment (Tamsin Greig), proprietor of a farm and Writers’ Retreat, and long-suffering wife of Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam), a writer, comments: ‘She’s poured herself into those shorts, I hope they don’t give her thrush!’ True, they are possibly the tiniest hot-pants ever worn onscreen, and calculated to catch the attention of the forever unfaithful Nicholas, with whom the audience infers Tamara has had flirtations in her youth.
From here, it begins to transpire that Tamara Drewe is actually not a particularly nice character – although Arterton herself is very hard to dislike. She reencounters her first love, Andy Cobb (Luke Evans, surely destined to become a star), only to ask him to redecorate her house (incidentally his ancestral home, which he had been forced to sell to the Drewes), before conducting affairs with several men, married or otherwise. She becomes engaged to a member of a rock band, Ben Sergeant, played by a fantastically convincing Dominic Cooper, which sends a local celebrity-obsessed fifteen year-old, Jody, into fits of jealous rage. Jody, helped by the fact that Tamara always leaves her house-keys handily under a flowerpot, soon begins to cause an inconceivable amount of mischief, which eventually results in a bovine stampede: the breaking off of Tamara’s engagement and the disgusting breakage of her plastic nose (this is the graphic violence part). She is wonderfully cast and deliciously unlikeable as a bored and utterly inconsiderate brat of a teenager.
The most likeable character of the film, on the other hand, excepting the honest Andy, must be Beth Hardiment, who provides the film with a constant undercurrent of real sadness and sympathy, as she patiently looks after the egos and stomachs of sensitive wannabe writers, whilst trying to forget about the fragile state of her marriage to the suave and pompous Nicholas. His insatiable appetite for younger women and his lame alibis break down her confidence bit by bit, as she examines and re-examines her middle-aged body and finds both herself and everything she does for him – from filling in tax returns to typing up his manuscripts – wanting and worthless. Their dysfunctional marriage constitutes the most biting and painful part of this effectively middle-class satire.
Nonetheless, after enduring all these trials and tribulations, the audience is granted a happy, albeit slightly rushed, ending. It is a shame that after meandering along at a leisurely pace, the film finishes with such a hasty tying up of ends, and it is less satisfying for it. Still, it remains a very entertaining way to spend a rainy afternoon, as good performances and cinematography more than make up for a rather thin plot – but what else would you expect from a comic strip?