Far from the Madding Cows
By Julien Allen
Dir. Stephen Frears, U.K., Sony Pictures Classics
In between Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and the gathering storm that is the upcoming adaptation of the Avengers series from Marvel Studios, 2010 offers us yet another comic book adaptation, but one of a markedly less frenetic nature. Based on a graphic novel (serialized in The Guardian) by British cartoonist Posy Simmonds, Tamara Drewe is a slice of genteel bucolia, which, on its publication in 2007, conveniently exonerated thousands of Brits from the apparently tiresome task of reading Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd all the way through. Likewise, its predecessor, Gemma Bovery, was . . . well, you get the idea.
As a voracious chronicler of numerous types of Britishness, but one who, despite his pedigree, is not fastidious enough about his oeuvre to consider himself above any particular kind of material, Stephen Frears is perfectly suited to the job of directing what most of his festival-bound compatriots (Leigh, Loach, Andrea Arnold) wouldn’t touch. On the outside, this constitutes a soporifically straightforward approach to a “Brit flick” comedy: a likeable star, a cast of top British TV comedy talent, a few decent laughs, and no real surprises. Playing to his principal strength (characterization), Frears does at least manage, with the help of scriptwriter Moira Buffini, to draw out the sting from a story that is otherwise almost wholly without edge, and whose impact is severely diluted by being a light-hearted adaptation of a light-hearted adaptation of a literary classic.
The story concerns the return of the titular—and titillating—newspaper columnist to her childhood home in a Dorset village of such overwhelming somnolence that it could have been the site of the virus outbreak in The Andromeda Strain. This makes it an ideal retreat for struggling writers, who congregate around the odious (-ly successful) thriller writer Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam, in fine comic form) and seek inspiration from the dewy countryside, the bons mots of the author and the home country cooking of his wife, Beth (Tamsin Greig). Tamara’s arrival, post-rhinoplasty, triggers a series of jealousy-fueled misunderstandings, confrontations, and other plot developments that owe much to bedroom farce, appropriately enough accompanied by a veritable tidal wave of coitus, the like of which we hadn't seen from Frears since his 1987 bonk-fest Sammy and Rosie Get Laid.
But despite flickers of recognition, Tamara is a world away from Terence Stamp in Pasolini’s Teorema. Her effect on her three male suitors—Hardiment, local lunk Andy Cobb (Luke Evans), and Dominic Cooper's campy rock star Ben Sergeant —is neither hypnotic nor catalytic: the first two used to be involved with her back when her nose was much larger and the third (the equivalent character to Hardy’s Sgt Troy—played by Stamp in the John Schlesinger version) is simply after a decent catch on the rebound. In fact the strangest (and probably strongest) aspect of Frears’s film is that Tamara Drewe herself is neither the instigator nor the genuine protagonist of the tragic plot that unfolds. This is a departure from both the comic and the original novel, wherein Tamara/Bathsheba is the most complex character; so presumably Frears and Buffini just find her boring. Arterton was far more involving in her previous foray into Hardy country, as Tess for the BBC, where six episodes gave her more room for maneuver. Yes, Gemma/Tamara is principally a poster girl for the film (literally, as the UK poster contains not much else), but even Ben's dog, let loose amongst a herd of cows, ultimately carries more symbolic and narrative significance.
Instead, the film's more resonant characters are to be found amongst the supporting cast of villagers. For example, what begins as a neat neo-Shakespearian conceit—two bored local teenaged girls observe all the shenanigans between bouts of texting and reading celebrity gossip rags—soon becomes neo-Homeric as the observers intervene and begin to influence, then ultimately control the action. One of the girls, Jody, played (as significantly younger) by 17-year old Jessica Barden in an eye-catching performance, is so obsessed with Ben that in a bid to lure him to the village, she sends a lewd email from Tamara's laptop promising all three suitors unforgettable sex. It is this intervention (leaving aside the megaphone-loud reference to Frears’s Dangerous Liaisons) that truly incites the chaos that ensues and that has an importance to the characters’ destinies broadly on a par with the meddling of the young girl played by Saiorse Ronan in Atonement. The macabre association of youth and sexuality remains just as unnerving here (the humorous context deepens rather than lightens the discomfort) and threatens to shake the viewer from the clotted cream tea coziness of the rest of the action.
If Jody and Casey remain the most memorable characters, it’s because they are the furthest from cliché. They are wholly different from each other, yet inseparable. A more pedestrian script might have made one a weaker version of the other, resulting in a predictable leader-follower relationship. Jody is confident and spunky, but desperate to escape the village and achieve celebrity (by shagging another celebrity, if necessary); Casey is loyal but far more cautious, grounded and defiant in her common sense. Elsewhere, Frears’s empathy with supporting characters manifests itself in the apparently peripheral relationship of Beth Hardiment (who cooks to forget the pain her husband’s antics cause her) and the blocked writer Glen (American actor Bill Camp) where, at its climax, the script veers promisingly close to the doomed romanticism of Hardy, before pulling swiftly back with a weak piece of slapstick.
A possible explanation for the film’s appeal to cinephiles, and its success in France, where it was featured in competition at Cannes 2010, might be owed to its faint echoes of the idyllic outdoor eating scenes of Louis Malle’s May Fools or even the surprisingly violent Chabrolesque denouement. But the film suffers inescapably from such cosmetic comparisons, because of its preference for gentle one-liners and risqué put-downs over genuine satire or thought-provoking dinner-table conversation. The director may look back fondly on his time as assistant to the “angry young man” Lindsay Anderson on If…., but even in his best work (The Grifters and Hero took him away from his comfort zone to great effect) he has always stopped short of genuine cinematic subversion. Nevertheless, Frears does have good taste in people . . . and his films, for better or worse, always bring that out.