Tamara Drewe - movie reviewWho knows what, in some gaslamp-lit spell of rambling daydreaming, Thomas Hardy envisioned for the future of his various works of fiction, but one can be fairly certain that the sight of Gemma Arterton's shapely bum "poured" into cut-off jeans shorts didn't feature in his woolgathering.
For that is, for better or worse, the enduring image of Tamara Drewe, an adaptation of an adaptation of Hardy's Far From The Madding Crowd that is at best mildly diverting and at worst irritating, limp and unpleasant.
Inspired by Posy Simmonds Guardian comic strip (later a graphic novel) of the same name, Tamara Drewe concerns itself with the titular lass (a buxom and bored-looking Arterton), a journalist who returns to her dull as dishwater hometown to spruce up her late mother's house in order to put it on the market.
In the interim she has also spruced up her nose, and the locals relish the opportunity to gossip like crazy when she hits Ewedown like a cyclone.
While there, she crosses paths with Andy (Luke Evans), her childhood paramour/bete noir, a robust local horticulturalist - "a gardener, then", as she bluntly and gleefully puts it - as well as Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam), a bestselling novelist, and his wife Beth (Tamsin Grieg), who runs a writers retreat.
At the retreat, among a group of writerly cliches - lesbian crime writer, up-himself academic, etc - that will elicit laughs from anyone who's ever attended a writers' festival, Tamara also bewitches Glen (Bill Camp), an American writing about Hardy in a fit of self-referential intertextuality that doesn't so much wink at the source material as it does bludgeon you with a copy of Hardy's collected works.
There are also a pair of bored schoolgirls (Jessica Barden and Charlotte Christie) obsessed with rock star Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper) who - surprise! - ends up accompanying Tamara back to Ewedown for an interview. And yes, I do mean an "interview".
Soon enough Tamara and Ben are engaged, Andy is enraged, and the unctuous Nicholas has dumped his mistress to clear the plate for Tamara's potential return (she would flirt with him as a teen and he entertains enduring fantasies).
Meanwhile, poor Beth tries her best to run a writers' retreat with all organic food and the like while Glen spouts increasingly scatological rhetoric (there are copious references to being "constipated" and "dumps" and even one scene in which he sits on the lavatory while waiting to deal with the aforementioned) and hangs around affecting the demeanour and appearance of an old, overweight labrador in tweed pants.
Tamara is less a character than a catalyst for everybody else's revolting behaviour, be it the jealous and irritating schoolgirls whose boredom and selfishness sets a horrible ball rolling through Ewedown, the deeply unpleasant Nicholas, or the ineffectual Glen's designs on Beth.
Only Andy and, oddly enough, the initially tiresome Ben escape the proceedings relatively unscathed. Both are, despite their differences, essentially decent. Beth does her best to manage to engender sympathy but you do wonder why she has put up with a philandering dolt like Nicholas for so long.
The whole thing churns towards its inevitable and deeply unpleasant finale, in which nobody really gets what they want (though they may get what they deserve).
Nicholas in particular is dealt a fate so gruesome that the film - which until that point had been a ho-hum dramedy of small-town scandal - springs a sudden (and serious) meditation on morality that neither deserves nor knows what to do with.
Yes, the landscape is pretty (if you like cows and brambles), and the script by Moira Buffini, whose dramatist background shows in its more than occasional moments of stage-y chit chat, is serviceable in its forward motion and slight sense of dread.
The script, peppered as it is with writerly in-jokes and intellectual asides, lacks the breathing space and easy wit of, say, Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard's Shakespeare In Love, which while a vastly different kettle of fish, unpacked the howling cliches of being a writer with a far defter touch.
However, Arterton has far more talent and charisma than most of her roles so far have afforded her the ability to demonstrate, and the unforgiving Tamara Drewe is no exception.
(The irony of Drewe being little more than a talking pair of jeans shorts I'm sure is not lost on anyone who read Arterton's impassioned plea for roles that required her to be more than "a piece of ass".)
As these alternately unpleasant and unfortunate souls churn about in their bucolically-set burlesque, the impression is that director Stephen Frears was out to lunch and instead employed the Scary Movie team to make English Sex Farce Movie.
Which, come to think of it, would have been a hell of a lot more entertaining.
Tamara Drewe opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday, February 3.
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