It is, of course, a well-worn maxim that Helen’s face launched a thousand ships, precipitating the bloody and lengthy Trojan War. But what could a nose alone accomplish? That’s the question posed by Tamara Drewe, director Stephen Frears’ (High Fidelity, Dirty Pretty Things) marvelous new romantic comedy of errors, opening this coming weekend at the Shattuck Cinemas.
Based on what I can only assume is the least-likely graphic novel ever penned, Tamara Drewe stars former Bond girl Gemma Arterton as the title character, a Dorset lass returning to her ancestral village of Ewedown after several years spent in The Big Smoke. Tamara left the country for all the usual reasons—Ewedown was a very small pond for an aspiring big fish—and her time in the Big Smoke has been well spent. Not only has she established herself as a respected journalist, she’s also invested in life-changing cosmetic surgery.
Once blessed with an enormous nose that caused her considerable childhood grief, Tamara has had her hooter toned down to pert button size—and the men of Ewedown definitely take note of the change. In addition to old flame farmhand Andy (Luke Evans), her proboscis draws the admiring attention of rock drummer on the rebound Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper, looking not unlike Russell Brand) and local horn-dog and renowned crime novelist Nicholas Hardimant (Roger Allam).
Nicholas and long-suffering wife Beth (the wonderful Tamsin Greig) operate a summer writer’s workshop on the side, where Hardy scholar Glen (Bill Camp) and others try to hone their craft. Their marriage survives by the skin of its teeth—Nicholas is a brilliant storyteller but a loathsome liar (“that’s what storytellers are, thieves and liars”, he assures us) and serial adulterer—whilst mumsie Beth just wants him to be straight with her whilst she bakes cakes and raises chickens. When Nicholas determines to bed Tamara at any cost, however, his transgression is a bridge too far for Beth—and a distinct threat to the peace of the entire village.
Though I’m not generally inclined towards bedroom farce, Tamara Drewe is an utter delight. Moira Buffini’s adaptation of Posy Simmond’s novel is literate, frank, and at times screamingly funny, and the cast uniformly excellent. Of particular note is token American Camp’s performance as lumpy, balding Glen, whose writer’s block is cured by Beth’s cooking, whilst youngsters Jessica Barden and Charlotte Christie are impressive as the film’s Greek Chorus, a pair of scheming schoolgirls who get involved in everyone’s affairs—romantic or otherwise.
Probably the first British film to feature a cattle stampede (foreshadowed by Nicholas’ contention that the local cows “exude bovine malice”), Tamara Drewe is a very typical Frears film: strong on character, intelligently written, and a little unconcerned with plot development but not much the worse for it. Some may have issues with the film’s sexual politics—though written and produced by women, the film’s lead character probably won’t be everyone’s idea of contemporary feminist icon—but this is robust, hugely enjoyable storytelling.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.