Director: Stephen Frears
Screenplay: Moira Buffini
Based On A Graphic Novel By: Posy Simmonds
Producers: Alison Owen, Tracey Seaward, Paul Trijbits
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Roger Allam, Bill Camp, Dominic Cooper, Luke Evans, Tamsin Greig
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 111 min
Riding on strong festival buzz and some decent reviews in the UK, I caught up with Tamara Drewe myself this week. I'm afraid I don't share the seemingly universal enthusiasm though, to me this was the very definition of overrated.
A quiet rural town in the English countryside includes among it's inhabitants Nicholas, an author famous for his murder mystery series who, with his long-suffering wife, open their house to other writers as an idyllic retreat. Other than the sleazy hack Nicholas' philandering which we are introduced to early on, the town and it's residents enjoy a quiet, pleasant existence. That is until Tamara Drewe shows up. A well-off ex-resident, Tamara comes back initially to sell the family home she's inherited, but after the glowing reception she receives, mainly due to her stunning new look (post nose-job), she decides to hang around, which stirs up passions amongst the men of the town, particularly old-flame Andy and of course the easily led Nicholas. In the meantime, two jealous teenagers cause mischief, putting many of the horny residents in trouble.
On paper it's a traditional English farce and on screen it is too to an extent. The problem I had is that it's never farcical enough to be anything beyond mildly amusing and it never stretches beyond it's uninspired roots far enough to transcend them. It's a very flat film that starts off promisingly enough with a set-up (of the writers' retreat) I thought would guarantee plenty of witticisms and satire, but never does anything with it. In fact, it never does much with anything. A lot seems to happen in the film, but nothing is ever developed and pretty much all of the characters end up in the same place they started, with few deviations to their paths along the way. This isn't helped by the fact that there are far too many characters and all are given about equal screen-time. To try and get away with this the film creeps close to the two hour mark, a terrible mistake for something so flimsy. Instead of allowing characters breathing space it turns the audience into clock-watchers. With a reasonable first half hour and an occasionally effective last one, the film has an ungainly mid-section that offers nothing.
What grated me most were the characters though, if you can call them that. Everyone in the film is a caricature, mainly lazy stereotypes of rural Englishmen, plus a painfully forced take on a rock-star. If they really went to town with this and painted them with broad strokes I might have excused this, but the tone isn't quite right. It certainly never reaches the gravitas of Mike Leigh's work that starts with a set of caricatures then strips back the layers. That's not to say all the performances in Tamara Drewe are bad though, it's more of a writing problem. Roger Allam makes for a slimy 'villain' and Bill Camp is likeable in the 'American abroad' role. Tamsin Greig impressed me most though delivering a more mature performance than usual, playing Nicholas' troubled wife. Her warmth helps her plot strand become the most engaging, despite it being the film's most predictable and her character on the surface being the most dull.
Most of the film is painfully predictable though, even when the poorly structured script stumbles into some of it's more contrived situations. It brought to mind insipid countryside-set TV shows like Heartbeat far too often when it could have been so much more. Stephen Frears, the director that brought us the underrated Dirty Pretty Things and gems such as High Fidelity and The Grifters should be capable of much better. Only a freak cow-related incident rises the film above bland through most of it's running time and that's only a minute-long diversion. All in all I wouldn't go as far as say the film is terrible, but it's so flat and uninspired that there's not a whole lot to recommend. Then again I am in the minority, so if you don't trust me, go and see for yourself.
Review by David Brook