Adultery livens up writers’ lives in Tamara Drewe

Tamara Drewe offers a remedy for writers afflicted with boredom and heartache: adultery, and lots of it. Director Stephen Frears (The Queen) returns to High Fidelity territory with his latest outing. Here, instead of John Cusack as a lovelorn DJ in Chicago, Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace) stars as the titular journalist who returns home to the sleepy British village Ewedown with a nose job and newfound sexual appeal.

Love affair · Gemma Arterton (above) stars as the title character Tamara Drewe, who returns to her hometown and ends up involved in the romantic relationships between her neighbors. - Photos courtesy of Sony PIctures Classics

She plans to sell her late mother’s house and enlists a local farmhand Andy (Luke Evans) to refurbish it. It’s a tall order for him: Tamara was his high school crush, and her home belonged to his family. He wants both back.

Tamara’s neighbors Nicholas and Beth Hardiment (Roger Allam and Tamsin Greig) employ Andy. They run a writers’ community where scribes come for some peace and quiet to accompany their procrastination. Among them is the American academic Glen (Bill Camp), who is writing a biography of British author Thomas Hardy who, like Nicholas, slept around a good bit.

Complicating the plot, as well as the intentions of anyone trying to explain this movie concisely, are the troublesome teenage girls obsessed with  rock star  Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper) who woos Tamara.

The plot revolves around affairs, lost loves, heartbreaks and teenage crushes that make what would otherwise be a boring place quite scandalous.

While the multitude of characters would suggest a grand novel as its source, Tamara Drewe was actually inspired by a comic strip of the same name, which in turn was a modern reimagining of Thomas Hardy’s novel Far From the Madding Crowd.

Moira Buffini’s script weaves the lives of all the characters into an impressive tapestry. All films about writers face the challenge of how to get around the writing, since it’s dull to watch someone sit at a computer and work. Worse yet, many films over emphasize the writers’ struggle with their craft. Buffini and Frears step away from that. Instead, they find humor and fun in the characters and the romances that blossom among them.

Like most movies based on comic books, however, the film version of Tamara Drewe feels a little abbreviated. The writers at the colony are a colorful lot, but most disappear as soon as the history of Nicholas and Beth is unvealed — he’s the author of a successful crime series, she’s the underappreciated wife largely responsible for his success.

The same goes for Andy. He has as much to lose as anyone else, yet he takes a back seat to Tamara, Glen and the Hardiments. Though his effect on the story remains large, his time on screen shrinks as the story goes on. In a world of colorful characters, his is flat and his absence dilutes the final act of the movie.

That’s not to say Evans’ performance hurts the film. He holds his own among celebrities like Cooper and Arterton and thespian heavyweights like Allam.

Arterton especially shines as Tamara. Frears is adept at capturing strong female leads, and Arterton possesses the confidence and sensitivity of Tamara. In flashbacks when a younger Tamara still sports a huge proboscis, Arterton delivers the necessary youthfulness. In the present, she moves from being tough to flirty to conflicted in moments. It’s a fun role for a young actress, and Arterton brings some necessary depth to Tamara.

The depth is necessary because the heart of the movie lies not with her, but with Beth and Glen. It’s the life they bring to each other that makes much of the film fun, and they steal much of the attention away from Tamara’s story and ultimately drive the plot.

As Glen, Camp rises above his cast. Glen could easily have been pompous and dour, but instead Camp imbues him with the upbeat uncertainty of a bored teenager.

Given its autumn release, Frears and company are probably looking for some Oscar attention — although the most refreshing part of that movie might be that it’s not obviously aiming for awards. Although it could garner nods for Buffini, Evans, Arterton and Frears, it will likely be remembered as a fun, light romance that doesn’t take itself too seriously.