DIR: Stephen Frears
CAST: Gemma Arterton, Roger Allam, Tamsin Grieg,
Dominic Cooper, Bill Camp, Luke Evans, Jessica Barden
I haven’t read the graphic novel that Stephen Frears’ latest is based on, but, much to my chagrin, I do have rather a lot of experience with the radio soap The Archers which it is at least tangentially spoofing. My stepfather is a huge Archers fan, and so for years I’ve had to listen to its 12 minute chunks of insufferably trivial storylines, “ooh arr” stereotype accents and shockingly awful performances. TAMARA DREWE adds a large dollop of sex to the upper middle class soapy mix, but much of the time it seems stuck between making jokes at the expense of its characters and the soap they are enacting and simply being as insufferable as what it is spoofing.
An extremely episodic film, TAMARA DREWE really has three strands which intertwine. The first concerns philandering novelist Nicholas Hardiment (Allam) and his devoted wife Beth (Grieg, an Archers veteran herself, as it happens), the second has Tamara Drewe (Arterton) returning from London to do up and then sell her parents house, in the process stirring the passions of both Nicholas and the Hardiment’s gardener Andy (Evans), who are both disappointed when she begins dating rock musician Ben (Cooper). The third story has two village teenagers, played by newcomers Charlotte Christie and Jessica Barden, who surreptitiously manipulate events, largely so that Jody (Barden) can stay close to her idol Ben.
So it’s quite complex, storywise, and that’s not all that’s going on. Unfortunately the stories don’t mesh as they should, and what you’re left with is a film that is interesting only in fits and starts. The main character of Tamara is largely to blame for this, as she’s probably the least interesting person in the film. Arterton is perfectly cast, she looks like an illustration from a graphic novel anyway, unfortunately, in a major step back from her impressive work in THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED, she’s just as flat as any drawing. The film doesn’t seem to know who Tamara is; romantic innocent or harlot. In many ways she’s less a character than a McGuffin with very nice legs, merely a device to draw the various characters and plot strands together. It’s not Arterton’s fault that she falls flat, but it’s not a great role for her first mainstream lead. Another issue with Tamara’s story is the bludgeoning predictability of it. Perhaps this is part of the way it is spoofing soap conventions, but if so it’s delivered with no humour, and lands with a graceless clang.
The side stories are much more interesting. Tamsin Greig gives an unexpectedly soulful performance, in a film otherwise defined by cartoony extremes. She’s extremely effective as Nicholas’ wronged wife, and the undertone of flirtation that runs through her relationship with Bill Camp (as a guest at the Hardiment’s writers retreat) is the one place where the script seems to have any real emotional content when dealing with the adult characters. However, the film is stolen by the village teenagers Casey and Jody (Charlotte Christie and Jessica Barden), their double act as rampantly hormonal and extremely bored 15 year olds is absolutely hilarious, but it is 17 year old Barden, best known, if at all, for British soap Coronation Street, who really runs away with their every scene. The dialogue written for her is spot on (when she sees Tamara with Ben she asks “why does she get Ben? I’ve been in love with him since March”), but it’s her energy in the role that makes her so magnetic, in one of the few things it gets absolutely right the film ends with Jody, in one of her funniest moments.
The look of the film is odd, I think the oversaturated colour and the bold costume and make up design is supposed to put us in mind of graphic novel techniques, instead all it really does, assisted by Frears’ rather flat shot selection and schematic editing, is make the film look like slightly overbright television. Several of the performances also suggest this, there’s a very stiff quality to much of the acting, with the discussions between the various writers on the retreat feeling especially rote, and Luke Evans as wooden as the stakes he’s frequently seen hammering into the ground.
Ultimately TAMARA DREWE is a frustrating film, it’s neither consistently funny nor consistently engaging enough to pass muster as comedy or drama, the stories are far too telegraphed and predictable to really engage and whenever the side characters do begin to charm us, the film cuts away from them back to the cardboard Tamara or the walking clichés courting her. It’s perhaps worth catching a matinee for Tamsin Grieg and Jessica Barden’s performances, but otherwise, this just doesn’t quite work.