Tamara Drewe is based on a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds, which was inspired by Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, and after a spate of graphic-novel movies that aim, inexplicably, strenuously, and, in the end, self-defeatingly to evoke their source material, it’s a relief to find one that puts the spirit of the thing ahead of the form. Director Stephen Frears gets the feel of Simmonds’s frames: Busy but airy, the characters in their frailty looking precarious against the fixed, implacable landscape. And because this is a Hardy-inspired, he juggles an unusually large number of characters — and perspectives.
Gemma Arterton’s Tamara Drewe, chatty lifestyle columnist for a London newspaper, is the last character to arrive in this small English backwater, but she’s the catalyst, the one who sets everything in madcap motion. She has two key attributes: She’s utterly gorgeous, showing up in a pair of short-shorts (you can see them on the poster) and riveting the gaze of men and women both. And she knows that her gorgeousness is provisional. She grew up with a near-Cyrano-size honker she had fixed, and now she can’t quite believe her new power.
Tamsin Greig’s Beth Hardiment owns this writer’s retreat with her husband, best-selling mystery writer Nicholas. She doesn’t just cook and clean; she’s a kind of muse, giving him ideas and typing his handwritten drafts. But the aging fop cheats on her like mad — which gives hope to the schlubby, radiantly unsuccessful Hardy scholar played by the superb American stage actor Bill Camp. Perhaps, he thinks, Beth could be his muse. Luke Evans is the dreamy handyman who loves Tamara, Dominic Cooper the rock-star drummer who plays his sticks up and down her body to seduce her. (In the original, it’s an officer’s saber — nice transposition!) Most deliciously of all are two saucy local high-school girls, Casey (Charlotte Christie) and Jody (Jessica Barden). It’s the latter who, desperate to snare the drummer for herself, sneaks into Tamara’s house and sends a lascivious e-mail in her name that ushers in the apocalypse.
Tamara Drewe feels too slight to earn its eventual casualties (although it mercifully omits the death of one of the girls in the graphic novel), but in its unpretentious way, it has the fullness of an eighteenth-century novel in which fate is inexorable and character equals destiny. In place of Hardy’s cosmic emotion, though, you’ll find a perverse little Mona Lisa smile that’s blessedly contagious.