Monday, October 4, 2010

The genre-jumping Stephen Frears gifts us with TAMARA DREWE. Thank you, say I.

Stephen Frears (shown below) is at it again -- bouncing around from genre to genre but leaving his own special mark on the proceedings. Thrillers, westerns, bio-pics, noirs, comedies, smart political/social broadsides, character studies, historic costume melodramas, and much else -- including some Hollywood product like Hero (which would probaly lie at the bottom of my Frears list). But even that one (and/or Mary Reilly) had some some good things to offer. At the top of the list lie most of his other movies, all jostling for first, second or third place because they're all good films. This time out--with his newest, TAMARA DREWE (which goes immediately to near the top of my Frears list)--his chosen genre may remind you of a cross between drawing-room comedy (set mostly outdoors in the glorious English countryside) and social satire that targets academia, as well as the middle and lower British classes.

Based on the supposedly beloved (though unknown by me) graphic novel by Posy Simmonds, itself inspired  by Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd, the movie is hardly Hardy. The references may be there, all right, but the film is far too much fun -- bright, saucy and snappy -- to put you in mind of the dark master's work. Taking place in what seems to be a kind of writer's colony cum-season-long-bed-and-breakfast run by a famous and best-selling-but-caddish writer and his long-suffering wife, the movie spins so many small plots and loopy characters into the mix that you fear for its ability to bring anything home. Put those fears to rest, dear viewer, for surely we have learned by now: No fears when Frears is afoot.

Though the movie does begin with a very Hardy-esque visual, as a sexy, sweaty man of the soil (Luke Evans, above) chops woods and has us imagining that we're a century or more back in time, the filmmaker then plops us first in media res, as a zaftig young woman in a nifty automobile arrives in town for a dalliance with our famous author (Roger Allam, below, in what is probably the movie's most perfect performance).

From here the ball starts rolling and never stops. We meet that put-upon but quite charming wife (Tamsin Grieg, below, left) and, among her several writer/guests, an American academic played by Bill Camp (below, right). These two provide the film with its sweetest, most likable characters.

The film's titular star Gemma Arterton, is certainly its main physical attraction. Ms Arterton (on poster, top), stacked and stoked, is a bundle of energetic joy as the young woman who left her family's mini-mansion in this small town as an ugly duckling and now, with some pronounced plastic surgery, has returned as the sexy swan.

There are also a couple of young "townie" girls, played by Jessica Barden (above, left) and Charlotte Christie, at right) fixated on a current rock star, one of whom looks likely to grow into up into, to use a Brit vernacular term, a right proper "slag";

that rock star with whom the girls are infatuated (and yes, as personified by Dominic Cooper, shown at left, he's a naughty hunk indeed, sporting an appealing set of drumsticks -- with which he gives an impromptu kitchen concert -- and some other nice equipment);

various and assorted would-be writers;

a herd of cows and one very energetic dog (shown with Mr. Cooper).

Terrible things happens to some of these characters, but I swear the smile will never leave your face. In fact, as the film rolls along, thanks to Mr. Frears' pitch-perfect ability to hold the right tone, that smile should turn into one hell of a grin -- never more so than when death descends on the scene. 

How and why the movie works so well is also due in no small part to the contribution of screenwriter Moira Buffini, who has taken Ms Simmonds' "novel" and, we are told in the press materials, added some of her own extensions. She's done a bang-up job of creating full-bodied characters -- all self-involved and ripe for satire, but some nastier than others -- then weaving them and their mini-plots together so that the movie builds gradually into an explosion of great, dark fun. One might have wished for a tad more succulent dialog. What we have is perfectly serviceable and does a fine job of getting us from A to B and finally Z. Dollops of Coward or Wilde would have been nice, of course, but as someone once said, "Why ask for the moon when we have the stars?"

Tamara Drewe, from Sony Picture Classics (my goodness, this company is currently on a roll), opens this Friday, October 8, in both New York City (at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Regal Union Square) and in Los Angeles. It will be arriving for the rest of you lucky Americans in a nearby city soon.

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