Thomas Hardy is not, perhaps, a novelist whom one would normally associate with comedy, fun and hilarity. (He did attempt one comic novel, "The Hand of Ethelberta", but it was a failure even in his own day and today is largely forgotten). "Tamara Drewe", however, based on a long-running cartoon strip in "The Guardian", is described as a modern comic reworking of his "Far from the Madding Crowd". The action takes place in the Dorset countryside and there are a number of Hardy references. One major character has the surname Hardiment and minor ones have characteristically Hardyesque Christian names like "Tess" and "Diggory". One character is an academic working on a critical study of Hardy and the manner in which another meets his death is reminiscent of an incident in "Far from the Madding Crowd".
The film is set in Ewedown, a fictitious village in Hardy's home county of Dorset. Tamara Drewe, a young and attractive journalist working for "The Independent" and a native of the village, returns home in order to arrange the sale of her late mother's house. (Several of Hardy's novels, notably "The Return of the Native", turn upon a central character revisiting the scenes of their previous life). Tamara corresponds to Bathsheba Everdene in the original novel, and the plot is the story of her love affairs with three men. Andy Cobb, Tamara's former boyfriend from her teenage years and a salt-of-the-earth countryman, is clearly intended as the Gabriel Oak figure, and Ben Sergeant, a charismatic but arrogant and self-obsessed rock star, is equally clearly intended as a modern equivalent of Sergeant Troy. (The Fanny Robin character is Ben's ex-girlfriend Fran, who has left him for a fellow band-member, although she does not come to the tragic end of her literary counterpart).
This left me wondering who the Boldwood figure would turn out to be. The obvious candidate seemed to be Glen, the shy bachelor American academic, but this was perhaps a bit too obvious. This film was always going to be a tough sell in America, given that there are no big Hollywood names in the cast, that much of the dialogue is in a rustic dialect of British English and that the only American character is middle-aged, balding, bespectacled and physically unattractive. Making the only American character a middle-aged, balding, bespectacled, physically unattractive loser in love, obsessively jealous to the point of homicidal fury, would have made it an absolutely impossible sell. Instead, Tamara's third lover turns out to be Nicholas Hardiment, the successful author of formulaic mystery novels. As Nicholas is just as successful as a womaniser as he is as a writer he does not bear much similarity in character to Hardy's Boldwood, but someone obviously felt that the parallels between film and novel should not become too obvious.
The script is often sharp and witty with some pertinent observations about life in the English countryside, which, as in Hardy's day, is not always as idyllic as it looks. It touches on topical matters such as the conflicts between local people like Andy and well-off second-home owners, or the lack of opportunities for young people in rural areas. The film is, at times, virtually stolen by the two mischief-making teenage schoolgirls Jody and Casey, brilliantly played by Jessica Barden and Charlotte Christie. The girls' main preoccupation in life, apart from sex, is their obsession with the doings of the celebrities about whom they read in glossy magazines. When they discover that Ben, one of their idols, is staying in their area they become obsessed with the idea of getting him into bed, even marrying him. There is also a very good performance from Tamsin Greig as Beth Hardiment, the long-suffering wife of the insufferable Nicholas.
The reason why the film does not earn a higher mark from me is that some of the characters come across either as caricatures or unbelievable. I found it difficult to accept Roger Allam's Nicholas as a successful serial seducer, as he is so obviously a sleazy, selfish cad that no attractive young woman in her right mind would touch him with a bargepole. Tamara's eagerness to drop her hotpants for him seemed completely incomprehensible. Ben is just as sleazy and selfish as Nicholas, but at least Dominic Cooper lends him a sort of dangerous sexual attractiveness, something in which the rumpled, ageing Nicholas seems completely lacking.
The title character is played by the strikingly attractive Gemma Arterton, something of a rising star at present, as a sexy, sluttish good-time girl. The film's advertising material was dominated by a photograph of Gemma in an improbably tight pair of denim hotpants; it was therefore difficult to take her seriously when she complained, a few days after the film's opening, that Hollywood only wanted her for her "ass". I couldn't, therefore, really see Tamara, a girl with the looks and personality of a glamour model, as a journalist for the "Independent", a high-minded left-wing broadsheet. (Doubtless the "Indie" wanted the same sort of product placement that its right-wing rival the "Daily Telegraph" achieved when Kate Winslet was cast as a "Torygraph" journalist in "The Holiday"). Gemma Arterton tries so hard to make her character sexy that she forgets to make her sympathetic. If the film-makers were going to turn "Far from the Madding Crowd" into a romantic comedy, they should have realised that one of the rules for a successful rom-com is "Don't Make Your Heroine a Slut". 7/10
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