Based on Posey Simmonds’ graphic novel, itself a clever, loose adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Maddening Crowd, Tamara Drewe is set largely in and around a rural Dorset writer’s colony, where a celebrated mystery novelist’s under-loved helpmeet (Tamsin Grieg) serves nummy snacks in dowdy turtlenecks, functions as an unacknowledged editor of sorts to her numerous and apparently mostly talentless residents, attempts to tolerate her husband’s philandering, and gradually kens on to the fact that the shlubby American Hardy scholar (Bill Camp) who keeps coming back to massage his writer’s block is probably falling hopelessly in love with her.
This is a rather sprawling ensemble comedy, so that’s not even the half of what’s going on in Moira Buffini’s adaptation—I haven’t yet introduced the titular character, who isn’t exactly the heroine of the piece but, most pleasingly embodied by Gemma Arterton, is quite obviously its star, a successful young journalist returning to her country home after years away with a new nose and a body to keep the cocks crowing night and day, making her grand appearance in ass-exposing cut-offs and a five-alarm red tank-top. Before we’re through she’ll have wittingly or unwittingly seduced a pretentious London rocker (Dominic Cooper), an even more pretentious middle-aged scribe (Roger Allam), and the local ex-con farm hunk (Luke Evans, sort of a less crazed-looking Michael Shannon) who opens the film shirtless and sweating against the setting sun in a tableau that could grace the cover of any six-dozen Harlequin Romances.
All this business—there’s still the mischievous teenage chorus to work in!—makes for a precarious balancing act. The multiple narratives are well-structured enough to keep us oriented, but from the get-go the overall tone slips into a decidedly broad brand of British comedy, replete with pissing cows and one guy eavesdropping while dropping a log, and Buffini’s dialogue is at times so on the nose—“She doesn’t need a writer; she needs a man!”—it’s nearly comical during those rare scenes that seem designed to be otherwise. The landscapes meanwhile are lovely, the story’s divided into seasons, and the occasional glimpse of London makes the big city seem dreary even for the rich. Director Stephen Frears seems at his best here when nurturing connections between his largely superb cast, as well as when emphasizing the script’s loving homage to bucolic life and sexually empowered women and its barely contained disdain for artsy retreats and emotionally immature men. Having said that, if a couple of the guys were more interesting, it may have elevated the film as a whole.