Very loosely based on Far From the Madding Crowd, Stephen Frears' Tamara Drewe is Thomas Hardy twice-filtered: first through the skeptical-sympathetic eye of the terrific British graphic novelist Posy Simmonds, who specializes in placing a contemporary spin on literary classics -- her previous strip-novel was Gemma Bovery -- and now by Frears, who translates Tamara into live action and retools the novel as a sex comedy.
Quite rightly, too, up to a point. Were he around for red-carpet duties, Hardy would surely enjoy the social satire in this nimble skewering of the English urboisie, seen here misbehaving wildly in the pastoral glades of deepest Dorset. And given his deep appreciation for firm young flesh, the author of Tess of the d'Urbervilles would doubtless admire the flaunted bod of Bond girl Gemma Arterton, who's frisky in the title role as a homely former bumpkin freshly plasticated into a new identity as a foxy, all-about-moi columnist for a tony London newspaper -- though I'm less sure that Hardy would climb on board with the decision to iron most of the tragedy out of the original.
On its own terms, Tamara Drewe is a hugely exuberant black comedy, unfolding over four scenic seasons at a writer's retreat set in a rose-strewn village overrun by city bobos in search of authenticity. An assortment of deluded twits labors over less than lambent prose, clucked over by Beth -- the excellent theater actress Tamsin Greig -- who's the strenuously organic, slightly dowdy wife of Nicholas, a bombastic crime writer and serial philanderer played by Roger Allam (last seen as Helen Mirren's kilted retainer in The Queen).
When Nicholas's latest conquest -- the titular Tamara, newly nosed and a vision in bum-hugging shorts -- shows up, ostensibly to renovate her late mother's house, the stage is set for a carnal roundelay that leaves almost no one in this quarrelsome collective (including some choice Buff Orpington chickens) unscathed. "I didn't know they provided material too," smirks one aspiring writer as the entire corpus witnesses a knock-down fight between Beth and Nicholas over his latest amorous betrayal.
Frears is always at his best making comic hay out of dark material. If The Grifters, The Snapper and The Queen were his finest films, Tamara Drewe is surely his most entertaining, and all the better for its setting on home turf -- territory Frears understands a lot better than he did, alas, the milieu of The Hi-Lo Country.
And he knows how to put a great film crew together. Tamara Drewe is a saucy little number, expertly gussied up with flying pink desserts, homicidal cows, split screens, a deliciously sharp screenplay by Moira Buffini, an emotionally versatile score by Alexandre Desplat, and copious flashbacks to fill us in on the festering vanities and resentments that laid the groundwork for this face-off between massively deluded egos.
What makes the movie, though, is the way the actors meld together as an ensemble and breathe idiosyncratic life into types. The Hollywood up-and-comers -- Arterton, and a riotously funny Dominic Cooper in the Terence Stamp role as a slimy rocker who wins Tamara's heart, or some other crucial organ -- blend seamlessly in with Luke Evans, as an exceedingly well-built old flame of Tamara's who's simmering with a not-so-secret grudge, and the American character actor Bill Camp as Glen McCreavy, a visiting Hardy scholar who becomes horribly complicit in a drama he thinks he's merely observing.
Glen may imagine he's the Greek chorus, but the key insight in Tamara Drewe gets driven home by Jody (uproariously played by Jessica Barden), a bored teenager who gets most of her worldly wisdom from celebrity trash magazines.
"What can ever, ever happen in a place like this?" she cries, after setting off an act of revenge that will have profound consequences for most of the major players (and indirectly trigger a disaster that doesn't quite work for this flirty little movie).
Perhaps tragedy was for the ancients; in today's reality show, there's nothing worse than nothing going on. (Recommended)