Screen Rant’s Mike Eisenberg reviews Tamara Drewe
Amidst all the explosions and car chases in this season’s movies, there’s one film that gives you a chance to simply sit back and smile. Stephen Frears’ Tamara Drewe is a dark comedy that lets you have a little fun at the expense of others. The official selection at this year’s Cannes, Telluride and Toronto International Film Festivals features Gemma Arterton in a low-profile cast that delivers high-profile performances.
While the sheer number of main players in the British film creates fast-paced, witty dialogue, it also takes away character backgrounds and motivations. But without a cast like this, we wouldn’t be graced with so many great performances, including the unforgettable Jessica Barden. The crowded cast is both the film’s strength and weakness.
Tamara Drewe is based on Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel of the same name, exploring the trickle-down effect of a series of events at a writers’ retreat in the English countryside.
“When Tamara Drewe sashays back to the bucolic village of her youth, life for the locals is thrown upside down. Tamara—once an ugly duckling—has been transformed into a devastating beauty (with help from plastic surgery). As infatuations, jealousies, love affairs and career ambitions collide among the inhabitants of the neighboring farmsteads, Tamara sets a contemporary comedy of manners into play using the oldest magic in the book—sex appeal.”
The real trick of Tamara Drewe is the suggestion that it follows the titular character. In hindsight, the more applicable title would be It’s All Tamara Drewe’s Fault. The once-quaint writers’ retreat that houses a handful of true “characters” is thrown off its rocker when Drewe arrives. But it wasn’t exactly a fortress of solitude before she appeared – drama was a mainstay long before. After Drewe’s arrival, the chain of events would confuse even Shakespeare as far as whether to call it a comedy or a tragedy.
That is the true beauty of Tamara Drewe – its unpredictability. Even in its darkest moments, you’ll find yourself laughing hysterically. The characters in the film all experience tragic events in one way or another, but their questionable morals bring smiles instead of tears. On top of it all, Alexandre Desplat’s (Fantastic Mr. Fox) eccentric score propagates that sensation for the audience.
There is always more than one storyline going on throughout the film. While the trailer would suggest Gemma Arterton’s Tamara Drewe is at the center of it all, she is simply the flame that causes the forest fire. Arterton’s performance is a sexually charged one that helps give the film some structure, but she is far from what makes Tamara Drewe so special. It does, though, prove she is more than simply the pretty face she was in Prince of Persia.
Most of the credit is due to the “supporting cast” of this ensemble piece. Everybody brings just the right amount of effort to their roles. Dominic Cooper shines as the out-of-towner rock star, but his character’s ignored backstory leaves him sadly underdeveloped.
The two stand-out performances come from Bill Camp and Jessica Barden. Camp is arguably the true focus of the story. He might have the most screen time of anybody and every event seems to directly affect him. In a dramedy like Tamara Drewe, Camp finds a way to be the comedic relief for the comedy – strange, but true.
Jessica Barden deserves a standing ovation in my opinion. The 18-year-old British actress passes for a much younger schoolgirl in the film, which adds to the hilarity of her actions. As the foul-mouthed Jody Long, Barden presents a character whose motives are sinister and whose passions are overflowing. She perfectly portrays a girl on a desperate search to become a woman, willing to reach for every extreme to convince herself she’s already an adult. Every moment Barden is on the screen is unpredictable and hilarious. Thankfully, the last act of Tamara Drewe puts her at the center of the story.
While the individual performances of Tamara Drewe were all top notch, the excess of characters gives the individual story’s little breathing room. There is never a sense of background to any of the characters, apart from Drewe, who is even kept behind closed doors for the most part. Background isn’t always a necessity, but without it, every character felt more like a piece of a puzzle than a puzzle by themselves.
Ultimately, the weakness of the film due to the lack of character motives falls by the wayside. The film grabs you from the start and you constantly look around the corner for the next hilarious twist. Without trying, Tamara Drewe becomes both a comedy and a tragedy. More than once, it rips the rug from under you and laughs at you while you lay on the floor in pain. Luckily, we get to do the same to the characters in the film.
Tamara Drewe is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, but will slowly expand to more theaters over the next month. If you get a chance and need a break from the intensely serious Oscar bait dramas of this season, go see Tamara Drewe and have a laugh.