So close. English director Stephen Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity) comes very close with his latest subdued comedy Tamara Drewe. Being in the ballpark just isn't good enough as the film falters in too many ways to be considered an overall success. Equal parts charming and exasperating, Tamara Drewe ends up giving us a ho-hum take on the English sex farce that never rises above its meandering story and congenial group of characters on display.
On the surface there doesn't seem to be a lot going on in the pastoral English setting of the film. There's a group of neurotic writers who stay in a large cottage, attempting to finish whatever book they happen to be working on. They are a motley crew who are published and unpublished in such diverse fields as mindless best-sellers, obscure literary biographies and lesbian crime fiction. The writers want calm, quiet and peace as they grapple with their imaginations and the dastardly "blank page." They don't always get what they want.
This is because Tamara (Gemma Arterton) moves back into the nearby cottage she grew up in. Tamara brings a storm with her by simply being Tamara. It seems since Tamara left, she had her giant nose shrunken via plastic surgery, became a successful London writer and has come home to work on her own novel and give the village a sexy, young woman that the males chase after. Her first appearance amongst the locals has her rocking a pair of Daisy Duke shorts so high up her legs that they would make Catherine Bach feel overdressed. After that, all the men are like bees after pollen.
I loved the scenes about the diverse group of writers in Tamara Drewe. These people are the strongest element of the film and could have made up the entire bulk of the story. I didn't need any of the townspeople that are included here and there. Using a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds to draw upon, Frears and screenwriter Moria Buffini, get to deliver a fair amount of zingers toward this group. Whether it is the sufferable, sensitive academic or the womanizing writer of a popular detective series, these writers are a quirky, interesting bunch. Too bad the bulk of the story moves away from them and to Tamara herself.
Tamara is just not that interesting or likable a character to base a film around. It's not the fault of Arterton, as she's both fetching and capable in the role. Did I already bring up the shorts that she dons early in the film? Hard to forget that, but she tries her best to make a rather unlikable female romantic lead more sympathetic. Her romantic dalliances range from the irritating to the flat-out hard to explain. These flings seriously dampen her appeal.
In the end, the sensible, handsome villager who pines after Tamara would be much better off steering clear and looking for a woman with a lot less drama.
There's also the issue of the blathering, whining, angry, emotional teenage girls that take up a chunk of Tamara Drewe's story. A little bit of them goes a long way and unfortunately the film keeps coming back to their running monologues of fantasy and disgust at everything around them. They are a couple of cliched, full of bad attitude teenage girls. I'd prefer more time spent at the writer's retreat and less with the spouting, surly teenagers, but that's not what Frears/Buffini give us. No, we get these two teenage girls or the moody rock star boyfriend of Tamara and the film suffers as a result.
It's hard not to be charmed somewhat by the setting of Tamara Drewe though. I'm an easy target when it comes to films set in rural England, Scotland or Ireland. Pastoral landscapes with rolling hills, cows, empty small-town streets, rustic cottages, soft focus sunsets that glow warmly on the horizon, irregular hand-stacked fences of stone and the lush green countryside of England are all prominently on display. While it makes me want to go on a visit, the location alone can't make up for the film's deficits.
Tamara Drewe teases us with its glimpses of intelligent whimsy, beautiful English rural setting and characters that might be worth spending time with. Then it snatches those things away and gives us an aggravating female protagonist, a couple of bratty teenagers who never shut up and veers away from the story that actually interested me the most. The end result is a classic case of an "almost" film that never engages because of the false steps that it chooses to take.
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