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film_tamara‘Tamara Drewe’ is a sly, funny, modern reboot of a Victorian classic

What happens when you cross Thomas Hardy with the modern (feminist) graphic novel? If you’re lucky, the result will be something sharply observed and acerbically funny like “Tamara Drewe.” This serial graphic novel from veteran cartoonist Posy Simmonds ran in weekly installments in London’s Guardian newspaper from 2005 to 2006. Set in Hardy country (the bucolic Dorset countryside), it’s a sly reboot of Far From the Madding Crowd, with a luscious heroine pursued by three obsessed men  from very different social strata.

Stephen Frears’ wry and delicious Tamara Drewe,  scripted by Moira Buffini, makes the most of Simmonds’ source material. In this saucy dark comedy about sex, beauty, infidelity and the writing life, the women have all the funniest lines. And what women they are: a nurturing farm wife, a raging lesbian author, a wisecracking barista, a pair of hell-bent teenage girls. (There’s even a herd of stampeding cows you don’t want to mess with.) Not to mention Tamara herself (a wickedly gorgeous Gemma Arterton), the prodigal daughter whose return to the tiny English village of her youth sets the romantic farce plot in motion.

The element of social class that so preoccupied Hardy and other English Victorians is transmogrified into a more modern hierarchy. In this version, Tamara’s swains include a sexy, stoic young gardener who pissed away his birthright on booze and drugs in his wild teen years and has now come back to the land. The wealthy, widowed farmer next door is here transformed into a pompous, bestselling mystery writer. A surly alt-rock star with more ego than brains stands in for the dashing, but unreliable soldier of the original. But it doesn’t matter if you don’t notice the bare bones of Hardy’s plot in Simmonds’ tale; her fresh take is delightful either way.

In a rural Dorset village so tiny and insignificant “the bus got scrapped,” aging lothario and popular crime novelist, Nicholas Hardiman (the sublimely oily Roger Allam) presides over an annual writers’ retreat run by his wife Beth (Tamsin Greig) at their country farm. In return for keeping the farm running and Nick’s career on track, editing his manuscripts, baking up a storm and tending to all their guests, loyal Beth is repaid by Nick’s constant infidelities.

Their hunky young gardener/handyman, Andy (Luke Evans, downplaying to charming effect after his last role as Apollo in Clash of the Titans), grew up in the farmstead next door. When his dad fell on hard times, he sold it to the wealthy Drewe family from London. He and Andy stayed on as caretakers until the old man died and Andy went into the youthful spiral from which he was saved by neighbor Beth, who offered him a job and a home.

Back in those days, Tamara was an “ugly duckling.” But she’s a stunner now (after a nose job), when she returns to sell off the place after her mum’s death. She’s also a celebrity journalist for a London newspaper whose latest assignment is alt-rock drummer Ben (Dominic Cooper)—who just happens to be in town for one of those open-air indie rock fests. Soon, Tamara is the eye of a libido storm involving all three men, fretful conditions further fanned by a hapless American academic trying to write a Hardy biography (Bill Camp), a Greek chorus of wannabe authors (including that cheeky lesbian), and two hormonal teen girls with the hots for Ben.

The actors are all perfectly cast, and the dialogue is smart, caustic and funny. Frears’ inspired filmic touches include an amusing opening montage of various writers’ dueling interior monologues, and Ben’s impromptu drum solo for kitchen instruments. If Tamara’s motivations are a bit sketchy at times, a glimpse into one teen’s impossibly gauzy fantasy about Ben suggests that Tamara is living out her own girlhood fantasy of what it’s film_tmaradrewelike to be beautiful and desirable. We long for her to come to her senses and for other assorted comeuppances to be dished out, and when they are, the results are highly satisfying and bristling with tart irony.

TAMARA DREWE

★★★1/2 (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>

With Gemma Arterton, Roger Allam, Luke Evans and Dominic Cooper. Written by Moira Buffini. Directed by Stephen Frears. A Sony Classics release. Rated R. 111 minutes.

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