Tamara Drewe; R, 111 minutes; Vinegar Hill, opening Friday


For all the familiar ground it covers, Tamara Drewe is a welcome rarity. It’s a film about writers that’s not too inwardly verbal; a black comedy that’s not too cruel; an ensemble piece that’s not too diffuse; an adaptation of a graphic novel that’s not too callow; and, in fact, a mature film that revels in adults who fall short of maturity. Think of how unusual that is. And what fun to discover that there’s still something inherently amusing about a sex comedy full of doughy, middle-aged English people.

An attractive young journalist returns to the place where she spent her youth as an ugly duckling in Tamara Drewe, from the celebrated British director Stephen Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity, Dangerous Liaisons), which opens at Vinegar Hill Theatre on Friday.

Gemma Arterton stars as the titular ugly duckling, who comes home to the countryside with a nose job and a new sense of herself. As soon as she hops the fence in her tank top and Daisy Dukes, we anticipate the genteel hell that’ll break loose at the bucolic writers’ retreat on the next farm over. Denizens there include a complacent and philandering crime writer (Roger Allam), his long-suffering wife (Tamsin Greig), a constipated American literary scholar (Bill Camp) and the hunky gardener (Luke Evans) who used to be Tamara’s boy next door. Plus, the interlopers: a moody rock star (Dominic Cooper) and a pair of bored, prank-pulling teenagers (Jessica Barden and Charlotte Christie) who serve, rather proactively, as the story’s chorus. 

The structure seems faintly classical. Moira Buffini’s script adapts Posy Simmonds graphic novel, itself a clever turn on Thomas Hardy’s novel Far From the Madding Crowd. With a few well-managed exceptions, Hardy’s heavy gloom has mostly been dissipated. It’s not archly tragic so much as situationist and true enough to life: Resolution seems both inevitable and accidental. Even the occasional eye-roll moments in Tamara Drewe seem strangely necessary, as if designed to calibrate the audience with just enough detachment to appreciate the overall absurdity.  

This is Woody Allen territory (even, nowadays, the part about being in England), and he might have given the same material more sparkles than catch the eye here. But director Stephen Frears is right for this job if for no other reason than because he is willing to push a potentially deadened artifact—an adaptation of an adaptation—with such verve.

And if this director makes it look easy, it must be in part from his years of focused practice. As in Dangerous Liaisons or The Grifters or High Fidelity, there is the nimble social observation. As in The Queen, there is the inner life of a woman in charge. And as in most Frears films, there is no sense of the story being subordinated to auteurist ego-strokes. You know a film is his not for any stylistic gimmick but because it’s alive and worth watching. And because he has a way of getting greatness from actors without seeming to want credit for it.

It’s accurate, but unfairly diminishing, to label Tamara Drewe as deceptively light. Arguably, it’s as unmemorable as so many of the year’s other movies have been. The crucial distinction is that it doesn’t pretend otherwise.