Could this be true of the Dorset where Tamara Drewe was filmed: “these people are not far from the madding crowd. They’re a madder, vainer crowd than anything to be found in London?” Discuss! (No chance, says someone on The Guardian’s own website…)
The unpicturesque malice and boredom of the middle-class English countryside are cheerfully recounted in this broad Day-Glo comedy with brutal moments of violence; Stephen Frears directs from a screenplay by Moira Buffini, based on the Posy Simmonds comic-book series. It’s set in a world where people stick their noses into other people’s business, or turn them up or otherwise get them put out of joint – and so, fittingly, a nose is here something to be surgically fixed or broken with a single, vicious punch. It’s like a particularly salacious episode of The Archers, or a Midsomer Murders with the violence left to the end and left casually uninvestigated. There is the taste of a McVitie’s Boaster laced with mephedrone.
I admit that Tamara Drewe does not have or aspire to the subtlety and elegance of Simmonds’s original drawings, but it’s a tremendously effective, forthright entertainment, and Frears and Buffini make their craftsmanship look easy, creating a soap-farce pastoral of Brit bourgeois out-of-towners. If middle-classness could be crushed up and mainlined intravenously, these might well be the ingredients that would go into the mix: country pubs, writers’ retreats, Buff Orpington hens, literary festivals, and a cameo from Radio 4’s James Naughtie.
Gemma Arterton plays Tamara, a posh girl from the catatonically sleepy village of Ewedown, whom locals remember as having a bit of a schnoz. After rhinoplasty, she has reinvented herself in London as a glitzy columnist and now returns in babelicious triumph to the old stamping ground, where she employs her ex-boyfriend Andy (Luke Evans) to do up the family home for a quick sale, and begins an affair with eyeliner-wearing pop star Ben Sergeant, poutingly played by Dominic Cooper. The infusion of sexiness sends the locals all of a flutter, particularly celeb-fixated teen Jody, a scene-stealer of a turn from 17-year-old Jessica Barden. But most discomfited are the Hardiments, who preside over an excruciating “writers’ retreat”. This place exists to encourage denial and delusion: it parts wannabe novelists from their cash and provides a sense of purpose for desperately unhappy Beth Hardiment, excellently played by Tamsin Greig, who busies herself with cooking, fussing and not thinking about the state of her marriage.
Most importantly, it exists to gratify the egoism of the appalling and oleaginous Nicholas Hardiment, a terrifically funny performance from Roger Allam – perhaps the only possible casting. Hardiment is a bestselling crime novelist of the sub-PD James variety, with a jaded-yet-sensitive sleuth called Inchcombe, and Frears amusingly shows how life has somehow come to mirror the middlebrow milieu of comfy detective fiction. Allam’s Hardiment has naturally absolutely no interest in helping other writers; his “retreat” is there to provide him with an unending parade of fans to be flirted with and patronised, and it distracts Beth from his frequent trips to London where he enjoys affairs with younger women.
Buffini and Frears show how the appearance of Tamara sets up a new and combustible state of affairs with Hardiment. Tamara cannot quite outclass him in the celebrity stakes – although Nicholas is nettled to notice that people are aware of her writing, and he is also convulsed with lust and resentment at Tamara’s far-from-guileless sexiness which takes the spotlight away from him. Beth says glumly: “She’s poured herself into those shorts; I hope they don’t give her thrush.” It becomes clear that Tamara, in her big-nosed phase, and when she was Jody’s age, indulged in some minxy flirting with Nicholas. The encounter between Tamara and Nicholas takes on the character of a strange duel and the revival of unwholesome, unfinished business.
Greig shows Beth as the dysfunctional, blind-eye-turning enabler of this situation: she semi-consciously permits Nicholas to behave badly, telling herself that it doesn’t matter because he is so reliant on her – which indeed he is, needing Beth to fill out his tax returns, do factual research, proof his manuscripts and ensure that his female characters are convincing. Greig’s face is a picture of self-reproach, fear and approaching rage; Allan’s face shows conceit and slippery evasion.
A recurring theme is the relationship between younger women and older, self-important chaps: just as Tamara had a thing for Nicholas; so Jody is infatuated with narcissistic rocker Ben. Glen (Bill Camp), an underachieving American academic at the writers’ retreat with a tender crush on Beth, intuits the ironic, generational aspect of all this by telling her all about Thomas Hardy’s lesser-known 1897 novel The Well-Beloved, featuring an artist who, at successive stages in his life, falls in love with a woman, and then with her daughter, and then with the granddaughter. The socio-sexual prerogatives of older men are at the heart of Tamara Drewe, and the Hardy parallel is interesting, although these people are not far from the madding crowd. They’re a madder, vainer crowd than anything to be found in London.
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