Director Stephen Frears covers familiar ground in Tamara Drewe, an aimless but engaging update of the classic English pastoral, adapted from Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel of the same name (which itself is a play on Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd). Gemma Arterton stars as a breezy journalist who returns to her late mother’s estate in the country and proceeds to cause trouble for the people at a nearby writers’ retreat. Among the troubled: philandering celebrity crime novelist Roger Allam, his much-put-upon wife Tamsin Greig, their American academic lodger Bill Camp, and their hunky handyman Luke Evans. Tamara Drewe assembles this cross-section of society—throwing in teenagers and rock stars as well—and keenly observes their interactions. The movie’s full of bed-hopping and erudite banter, and sticks to the “lies and misunderstandings” mode of classic English literature, even as it acknowledges that much has changed in an era of gossip magazines and weekend music festivals in farmers’ fields.
But while Tamara Drew is enjoyable throughout—right up to its loony, loony ending—it’s more than a little scattered. The title character’s only in about a third of the film, and that diffused focus saps Tamara Drewe of a lot of its drive. Some of this is the fault of the source material, which was originally serialized and sprawling, more interested in engaging readers from installment to installment than in hanging together as a proper novel. If Frears and screenwriter Moira Buffini had reworked Simmonds’ novel and told the story through the perspective of one or two characters, the movie would be a lot stronger. And it needn’t have been the main characters, either. The most consistently entertaining people in the movie are Jessica Barden and Charlotte Christie, a pair of local girls who watch all the action from the periphery and give the characters nicknames like “Plastic” and “D-List.” They embody what Tamara Drewe is really about: showing how times change and generations turn over, but people continue to grow up full of grudges and ennui.