HeyUGuys LogoThe second film of today’s viewing schedule saw me taking my seat to watch Stephen Frears’ newest offering Tamara Drewe, an adaptation of the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds (which had run as a comic strip in the Guardian), which itself was an adaptation of Far From The Madding Crowd, in a modern, round-about way. Not exactly typical Stephen Frears fare by any means- the man who has brought one of the most diverse personal canons of work for public consumption has recently taken the plaudits for far more serious projects, though he has never wavered in his ability to draw characters, and offer superb visuals.

Those visuals, shot in Dorset (which Frears apparently consciously envisaged as a “new Provence” for the film) are remarkably reminiscent of  spirit of the French New Wave of Godard, Truffaut and Chabrol, a visual homage that is also picked up in the somewhat absurdist twists of the plot throughout the final third. And the whole film looks beautiful, with a chocolate-box depiction that the American audience will surely lap up.

Screen-writer Moira Buffini has done an admirable job bringing the story to life, and adding in some excellent comic moments, usually centred around Bill Camp’s character Glen, an American Thomas Hardy scholar suffering a creatively delapidating case of Writer’s Block. The final third of the film is particularly strong, with a specific dark twist that doesnt look to be coming at all as it builds up, and gives Frears the opportunity to play with a little more deep subject matter. However, the only problem with the film is that titular character isnt developed anywhere near enough to justify her billing. Gema Arterton’s performance is just about good enough, and she looks insanely good, but she seems to be more of an ensemble member than the main character, when a slightly more substantial performance/written role would have been very welcome. Had Frears been able to easily transfer across his experience from working on Alan Bennett’s TV productions, in terms of character building dialogue, and the appeal of offering more of a fascination to attract the audience to particular characters.

Tamara Drewe

But Arterton is charming enough, and plays a faily irredeemable character nicely enough for her transgressions and promiscuity do not get in the way of our enjoyment of her ultimate redemption. There will inevitable be a certain amount of comparisons to Bridget Jones, both in terms of the character and the film itself- the humour is roughly similar, as are the relationship dramas (even the choice of Ben or Andy is very similar to the choice between Hugh Grant and Colin Firth for Bridget). Personally I would have preferred Tamara to be more of a bitch, though of course making her utterly irredeemable as a character wouldnt have fit in with the gentler feel of the picture.  And it would have been robbed of its pleasant Sunday afternoon feel.

This is understandable in the wider context of the other cast members’ performances- which are all uncannily on target, even the brief cameo-like appearances of hilarious, militant lesbian crime writer Eustacia (played by the always welcome, and way too unprolific Bronagh Gallagher) and Pippa Haywood’s brief turn as a fellow frustrated writer at the writer’s retreat which forms the backdrop for a good deal of the film. Even better for the transition from comic to screen, the casting director has managed to fill the roles with actors who closely resemble the characters in most cases, even according to creator Simmonds:

I couldn’t believe how much the cast looked like my characters. It’s a weird process. I had drawn from real life and made them two-dimensional, so to speak, and it was extraordinary seeing that metamorphose from the page into three dimensions again. Of course film is a totally different thing – there are differences in the plot – but I don’t mind that.

The highlight of the acting on show is definitely shared by two male characters. First of the duo is the excellent Roger Allam, the best on-screen philandering sleaze-ball in recent memory, who has the smile of a politician and the ethics to match, and deserves to be considered as one of the best acting performances on show at this year’s festival (a shame that it screened Out of Competitio). The second, and a personal shock, is Dominic Cooper as morally ambiguous Ben, drummer and diva of proclaimed Indie-Gods (though they sound more like a Clash-lite tribute), who is sultry and pathetic in equal measure and provides some welcome and unwhitting comic moments. He is also very believable as a rock-star, and looks deliciously good in heavy eye-makeup (even to a straight man like me).

As Simmonds points out in the quote a little further up, the plot isnt an exact match for the graphic novel, nor is it overly similar to Hardy’s …Madding Crowd, but then there is never that much merit in taking that route, especially when a graphic novel is already invested in an idea of how the story looks visually anyway. I felt myself drawing comparisons with certain Shakespearean tragicomedies as the film continued, especially A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the obsessive teenage duo of Jessica Barden’s Jody and Charlotte Christie’s Casey (who only want to realise their dream of meeting their idol Ben) playing the role of Puck and his fairy compatriots in playing merry  chaos with on-screen relationships for their own entertainment.

I find myself increasingly frustrated by the stylistic choice some directors chose to depict the passage of time- the use of captions or even full screen cards that say which month we are currently watching, or how long has passed since we were last with the action. British films, like Confetti, Love Actually, Another Year and now Tamara Drewe all use the technique, basically rendering the need for a director to suggest the passage of time through clever visual techniques redundant, which can only be a bad thing, in my opinion, and somewhat of a cop-out. Even more annoyingly in Tamara Drewe, the passage of time is not really necessary at all- the narrative would work as an immediate linear progression, nothing is actually gained by suggesting that the events have gone on for a year, and nothing (apart from perhaps Tamara’s integrity with lovers) would be removed for its absence.

Overall, Frears’ latest is a wonderfully charming, very British comedy, with strong performances throughout (though perhaps lacking a little main character hook), and it will undoubtedly find a favourable audience when it eventually achieves a release in Britain. The Bridget Jones’ Diary comparisons will run rampantly alongside the review, but, even despite some of the more derogatory things aimed at  that franchise, it will do well to emulate its success in terms of Box Office revenue. On the strength of what I saw today, Id say there might be a chance, but Tamara Drewe lacks the initial star-power draw of its fellow British rom-com, and has a dark undercurrent that might make it a little less commercially successful.

Either way, Frears deserves credit for what he has created here.