This review was originally published during indieWIRE’s coverage of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The films hits theaters this Friday, in limited release.
Posy Simmonds’s 2007 graphic novel “Tamara Drewe” portrayed a reckless, stuffy, egotistical author, but she still pitied the guy. In his scathingly funny big screen adaptation, Stephen Frears scoffs at them. The director manages to improve on the source material by putting its dark satiric edge in the spotlight.
Set in an English countryside teeming with neurotic personalities of various ages and ambitions, “Tamara Drew” mainly centers on trashy novelist Nicholas (Roger Allam) and his irrationally supportive wife Beth (Tamsin Greig), who starts to lose her willingness to look the other way when Nicholas sleeps around. The couple run a writers getaway on their land, where several colorful scribes hang around and quietly judge their hosts’ dysfunctional relationship. In particular, American academic Glen (Bill Camp) comically lumbers about in the background.
Boredom prevails upon their lives, as it does for a pair of teenage girls (Charlotte Christie and Jessica Barden) from the town whose outsider perspective on the adult world constantly pulls the threads of conflict together. Across the field at a neighboring farm, the eponymous journalist Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton) emerges into the setting with renewed sex appeal, thanks to a recent nose job. Beth judges; Nicholas ogles. One line of dialogue sums up Tamara’s newfound appeal: “Life sure comes easy for the beautiful.”
The plot wanders all over the place, but it remains enjoyably cynical throughout. Tamara forges a relationship with disgruntled rocker Ben (Dominic Cooper), a sex symbol for the teens, who secretly play around in the couple’s home when they’re away. Suave gardener Andy (Luke Evans) recalls a teenage love affair with Tamara while sizing up her current fling. Nicholas conspires to kill off his biggest franchise, and Beth wonders why she ever dedicated time to supporting her husband in the first place. Cycling through a form of suburban frustration until it reaches the violent conclusion, “Tamara Drewe” drenches a series of meltdowns in delicious sarcasm.
While the dry humor occasionally wears thin, Frears avoids the all-inclusive and fairly unlikely series of twists in the original book in favor of a conventional, focused structure that’s persistently funny. Frears admirably juggles a series of interlocking stories while boiling them down to a small ensemble of competent performances. Arterton does a solid job as the dominant object of desire, but Allam’s cranky, pompous Nicholas stands out. Frears views his subjects with an unlikely combination of sympathy and contempt, finding the right balance with a morbid set piece offset by the earnest finale. “Tamara Drewe” has little staying power, but plenty of whip-smart entertainment value. Appropriately enough, the movie embodies an attitude as self-satisfied as the mopey authors it puts in unflattering close-up.