Stephen Frears’s Tamara Drewe is essentially a Restoration sex comedy set in the English countryside. It’s based on a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds but the plot structure and characterization is best described in reference to that historical genre.What the film does well–what is in many ways Frears’s calling card–is explore the conflict between surface gaiety, luxury, and indolence and deeper internal melancholy. Tamara Drewe is very much a comedy, but like High Fidelity, it shows characters staving off pain any which way they can.
The English countryside in question is the home of a writer’s retreat run by the perpetually philandering Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam), who has created a wildly successful detective series, and his long suffering wife Beth (Tamsin Greig). Add to the mix an academic with writer’s block who appreciates Beth, a young farm hand bit of male eye-candy, the eponymous titular ugly duckling transformed to a beautiful swan (Gemma Arterton) courtesy of one very well considered nose job, a none-too-bright but successful rock drummer coming off a bad break up, and two bored school girls and you have all the pieces in place for musical chair…err, beds.
Of course having all the right pieces and knowing what to do with them are two very different things. Frears is an underrated genius of a director who brings a sure hand to material as different at High Fidelity, The Queen, Dirty Pretty Things, Cheri, Mrs. Henderson Presents, and Dangerous Liaisons. On the surface (there’s that word again, sorry) these films are very different, but in their way, each is about the incredible difficulty of making connections with other people and the ways people manage the pain that comes from their psychological and emotional isolation.
Unlike most contemporary comedies, particularly romantic ones, the film gives faults to the best of the characters and redeeming qualities (or at least humanity) to the worst, which means that the connections that are made are not just about resolving the plot so that the only two worthy people end up with each other.
Of course another feature of comedy is that it always looks easier than it is when it is done well, which is another reason Frears doesn’t get much credit for his increasingly impressive body of work. Tamara Drewe is not his deepest or most affecting work, but it is entertaining and–often in a subversive sort of way–it sticks with you.