A lot happens during two hours of Tamara Drewe. At an idyllic writer’s retreat in the English countryside, a man has an affair, an American longs for a married woman, a working-class farmhand carries on with a bartender, a journalist dates a rock star, a man has another affair, and a couple of meddling teenage girls cause mischief. How does it all come together? It doesn’t — that’s the problem.
The girls, Jody (Jessica Barden) and Casey (Charlotte Christie), spend their days lamenting the boredom of their quiet town, throwing eggs at passing cars to pass time, but if they stopped for a moment they’d realize they live in an episode of The Young and the Restless. The film begins with the revelation that successful crime novelist Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam) has been cheating on his wife, Beth (Tamsin Greig). Elsewhere, prodigal daughter Tamara (Gemma Arterton) returns home, now a successful newspaper writer. She used to be teased for her large nose, but she’s had cosmetic surgery, and now she turns heads.
Describing the story of Tamara Drewe is difficult, because there isn’t much of one. The screenplay by Moira Buffini, based on a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds, consists of loosely connected incidents — bits of story than never quite add up to a whole one. The characters have little agency apart from Jody and Casey, who actively engineer much of the plot with email pranks and cell phone pictures. Other characters are largely passive, like Andy (Luke Evans), who is ruggedly handsome and poor, which means he’s the romantic hero, but he spends most of the film pining.
Even Tamara, the ostensible protagonist, seems to be at the mercy of her circumstances. She doesn’t make choices so much as she lets things happen to her. Such a wayward character might be the basis for an interesting movie, but we never really understand who Tamara is or why she makes the choices she makes. She’s introduced as a journalist, but the one article she sets out to write ends with her sleeping with her subject, Ben (Dominic Cooper), the drummer for a popular rock band. It’s not clear if she ever finishes the story; her interview is brief and he doesn’t actually answer any questions. She’s also writing an autobiographical novel, and in another scene a blocked American writer, Glen (Bill Camp), complains that everything comes easy for the beautiful. She protests and wittily insists on her intelligence, but her writing process is hardly of interest to the film, which is more concerned with what happens between her sheets.
There is one romance in the film with real rooting value: between Glen and Beth, the two best characters. Glen is awkward but sincere, intelligent but lowly. He’s writing a critical analysis of the works of Thomas Hardy, and his discussions of the author’s life indicate what he really thinks of Beth’s husband. He’s ever the gentleman, enjoying Beth’s company without crossing the line he wants so badly to cross. Beth, as played by Greig in the film’s most affecting performance, is strong-willed, complex, and burdened by truths she’s not sure she can face but are too perceptive to ignore. I want them to succeed, but their storyline too is marred, by a late development that marks an abrupt and unwelcome tonal shift that seems to come from another movie altogether.
Tamara Drewe was directed by Stephen Frears, an eclectic filmmaker who has succeeded with comedies (High Fidelity), so that can’t be the problem. I think simply that the film is overpopulated with storylines and characters and lacks a clear idea to draw them together. The film, like Jody and Casey, wants to bring excitement to its sleepy village but doesn’t quite devise a good way to do it. It chucks eggs at passers-by and hopes something funny happens when they hit.
Watch a trailer for the movie here: