Stephen Frears has an odd body of work. He started off with spiky costume drama (DANGEROUS LIASONS), moved to equally spiky contemporary British drama (DIRTY PRETTY THINGS) but then segued into what can only be described as English heritage drama, with the banal MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS and the over-hyped TV drama THE QUEEN. His latest flick - an adaptation of Posy Simmonds Grauniad strip, continues his run of diminishing returns. It's a movie that, for all its lush location work and occasional stabs at spiky social commentary, is dangerously structurally imbalanced.
As far as I can tell, the problems stem from the source material - you can read it all online at the newspaper's site in about an hour. It's apparently based on Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd, but other than the fact that the central character is sexy and has three lovers, there are very few parallels. Not least because Tamara Drewe simply doesn't hold the centre of our attention in the way any eponymous heroine should. In the strip, the centre of the story isn't Tamara Drewe at all - but Beth Hardiman, wife of an Ian Rankin-type crime novelist called Nicholas. She's fat, cheated-upon, taken-for-granted and generally quite bitchy. Essentially, she's as much as fault as her lecherous, narcissistic husband for the pitiful state of their marriage, insofar as she enables his shitty behaviour. She likes that he's dependent on her, and smothers him with baked goods and motherly attentions, rather than being his wife. The Hardimans are classic English middle-class yuppies, who've made money, buy a nice run-down farm in the country, and then fill it with Cath Kidston and Waitrose shopping, much to the ire of the locals who are bid out from the local housing market. (I aspire to being such a "banker-wanker"). The farm also serves as a writer's retreat, which suits them both just fine. Nicholas gets fawning acolytes - Beth has more people to mother and feel indispensable for. So basically, the two protagonists at the heart of the strip are pretty unlikeable, but at least you get what makes them tick.
And so the story goes, until Tamara Drewe turns up in hot pants, newly beautified by a nose job, baring all in her self-referential newspaper column. She decides to move into her late mother's house at Winnard's Farm, and write a novel - just like that. In the strip, we read her columns, but never read drafts of her book. We're meant to think she's not much cop at writing, but there's really not much else there. I have no idea what makes the girl tick - and maybe that's deliberate - maybe she's just meant to be a sex object - but that seems a weird authorial choice. Shouldn't we care about, and understand, the eponymous heroine of the strip? Anyways, following Hardy, Tamara has three potential suitors. First up is local gardener, Andy Cobb - earnest, nice, dull - presumably in the Gabriel Oak mould. We have no real understanding why he should be so interested in Tamara or vice versa - they seem entirely unsuited. But maybe I'm wrong - as neither is fleshed out as a character, who knows? Second is minor rock star, Ben aka Sergeant Troy. Except that he's not really a love-rat, and actually an okay guy, and basically, Tamara's never really at risk from him. Third up is Nicholas Hardiman - old, oleaginous author - who is never really at risk from Tamara in the way that Boldwood was at risk from Bathsheba. Yes, after a few quick shags he wants to finally leave Beth, but there's no subterranean violence. And without that deep sexual tension the motive of the plot can't be sexual violence - rather a couple of bored teenage chavs who send a few prank emails, and a herd of bored cows. Deus ex machina have never been as bizarre - okay - maybe Hardy's stampede, and then that odd scene of puncturing sheep's bellies - but the final strips - with two acts of violence that have no build-up, no foreboding atmosphere in the preceding columns - just seem random and insufficiently dealt with.
And so, now, we get the movie. This is, in essence, a very faithful adaptation. All the key characters are locations are there. The houses and farms look exactly like the script, and all of the better, spikier one-liners are kept in. The underlying tension between impoverished locals and wealthy second-home-owners is still there. And the most authentic part of the script - the insecurity and narcissism of writing - and the jealousy between writers - is translated wholesale. But screen-writer Moira Buffini has made several improvements - in particular, several of the characters are more convincingly drawn. Roger Allam's Nicholas Hardiman is far more sinister and slippery and real than in the strip and Tamsin Greig's Beth is less bitchy and more put-upon - in her portrayal of Beth you can see a million failed marriages where the wife has simply lost the ability to conceive of herself alone. Moira Buffini also does a good job in beefing up the role of writers-retreat-ee Glen McGreavey (Bill Camp). In the strip, he's just a contra-Nicholas - an academic, writing obscure books that no-one reads, utterly appreciative of Beth's nurturing - whereas Nicholas writes commercially successful nonsense and takes Beth for granted. In the movie, Glen becomes perhaps the most interesting character of all - standing for integrity and appreciation, but ultimately becoming just as slippery as Nicholas himself. Moreover, he proves once and for all that Beth is a co-dependent - looking for someone to mother and be used by, even when Nicholas is out of the picture.
But the biggest breakthrough - for better and worse - is in the characters of teenage chavs Jody (Jessica Barden) and Casey (Charlotte Christie). In the strip, they serve as a counter-point to the middle class angst at the farm and as a means to the Hardy-esque email that triggers Tamara's affair with Nicholas. They are bored, smoke in bus shelters, and are utterly obsessed with celebrity. But in the movie, partly because of the higher proportion of screen-time they get, and partly because of the quite superb performance by Jessica Barden, they completely steal the show. The angst of being stuck in a small town, knowing that nothing will ever happen unless you back yourself, and then realising that in the real world there are consequences - now that's an interesting story. Jody's journey from fantasist to realist is superbly essayed and deeply engaging.
Now here comes the problem with the movie. Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton) and Andy Cobb (Luke Evans) are as thinly sketched in the movie as in the strip. But Jody is far, far more interesting. And so, you end up with a movie wherein the supposed heroine is almost irrelevant, and certainly not the centre of the viewer's attention. No amount of witty one-liners, or glossy location photography, can offset that fundamental structural weakness.
Additional tags: Ben Davis, Mick Audsley, Leo Davis, Bill Camp, Luke Evans, Tamsin Greig, Jessica Barden, Charlotte Christie, James Naughtie, John Bett, Josie Taylor, Bronagh Gallagher, Zahra Ahmadi
TAMARA DREW played Cannes 2010 and plays Toronto 2010. It was released in France in July and is currently on release in the UK. It is released next week in Belgium, in the USA on October 8th and in Germany on December 30th.