Every so often in the slog-athon of cinematic high art known as the Cannes Film Festival, some sprightly title sneaks onto the schedule: a tangy sorbet interlude in the grand buffet of worthy gruel. I confess I'm especially susceptible to these lighter efforts, because they have comic pizzazz, or at least a pulse. They remind me that, in the world beyond the Cote d'Azur, not every film has to be about dying criminals or Romanian abortions (topics that, in the right hands, can make for enthralling experiences). In fact, they needn't be films at all. People go to the movies, and expect entertainment from them.
That's what I got this spring from Stephen Frears' English comedy 'Tamara Drewe', which spurred me to instant acclaim on TIME.com. "'Tamara Drewe' to the Rescue!", I wrote in the first flush of my pleasure. But now it's autumn, when any Cannes film has to be compared to all those other "movies" in current release. Would I love Tamara in October as I did in May? Was she a spring fling a dalliance with a pretty, and pretty good, picture that might lose its luster amid zazzier American comedy-dramas of class, sex and ambition? The Frears film was no longer competing with, say, the mystical Thai epic Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, this year's Cannes winner. Now it was up against Easy A and The Social Network, the darling girl and billionaire boy of the fall season.
The first image a leafy, adoring shot of Andy Cobb (Luke Evans), a strapping, shirtless hunk at his bucolic labors suggests we're in for romantic soft-cornography of the Harlequin fashion. Sure enough, this Mellors type soon encounters his Lady Chatterley: Tamara herself (Gemma Arterton), who has returned from London to the Dorset village of Ewedown where she grew up. Straight on, though, the movie reveals itself as a rural comedy of middle- and working-class manners. We learn that Andy's family once owned the house Tamara now lives in. "Sadly," he observes with rather more political acuity than a gamekeeper is usually credited for, "I'm still prey to the economic forces that threw the peasants off their land."
Andy does odd jobs for the owners of the next farm: Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam), a best-selling crime novelist and serial philanderer, and his rather-too-long-suffering wife Beth (Tamsin Grieg). Once mocked for her big nose the villagers called her Beaky Tamara has returned as a rhinoplastic bombshell. Now that she has a new mug, everyone wants to bed her: Andy, her true destined lover; Nicholas, because she's there; Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper), a rock-band drummer pining over the loss of his girl singer to the band's guitarist. Ben has his only would-be inamorata in the sweet-faced, chip-toothed, cunning-souled teen Jody (Jessica Barden), who is jealous of Tamara's affair with her idol "How could she get Ben? I've loved him since March" and whose schemes to get close to him will unmask the county's myriad of shaggings. Expect revelatory phone-photos, intimate conversations overheard in toilets and, oh, a fatal stampede of cows.
Reseeing the early scenes of 'Tamara Drewe', I got the queasy feeling that Frears was pushing too hard. Some of the comedy struck me as strident. When Nicholas first spots the new-nosed Tamara in her short shorts, he's coaxing the cork off a champagne bottle held between his thighs; sure enough, the cork pops and the liquid squirts out incriminatingly, before Beth pats down his stained trousers. Even a sympathetic viewer has to tread carefully in the first half-hour, as acutely observed humor vies with the more obvious farce of pratfalls and eggs tossed at car windshields. But not to make the suspense too excruciating I surrendered midway through to the film, to the wayward torque of its plot and the near-perfect pitch of its acting ensemble.
Just to name two: Arterton, 24, made a splash in two St. Trinian's girl-school comedies before becoming the babe du jour in Quantum of Solace, Clash of the Titans and Prince of Persia. Her sudden star status mystified me, her appeal alluded me, until this film, which raises her on-screen IQ to her va-va-voom level, and to which she applies the sultry steam of a woman lately used to being pawed and adored. As for Allam, he has to be considered one of the supreme Brit actors of stage (as the original Javert in the musical Les Misérables, as Willy Brandt in Michael Frayn's Democracy), television (the sulky Tory minister in The Thick of It) and now movies. His Nicholas is a wonderfully conniving bastard, using his claret baritone to purr evasions to Beth and peddle false modesty to his literary groupies ("I simply pander to popular taste… I'm just earning a crust") before tiptoeing off to one of a hundred adulteries. Just thinking of Allam's performance plants a sheepish smile on my face.
Frears, 69, has been making films for more than 40 years, alternating quirky British indies (Gumshoe, My Beautiful Laundrette, The Van, Dirty Pretty Things, The Queen) with more medium-budget films featuring American stars (Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Liaisons, Dustin Hoffman in Hero, Julia Roberts in Mary Reilly). No lofty auteur, Frears makes films that, usually, are exactly as good as their scripts; he's one of the last and most honorable directors for hire. And here he has a crafty, twisty screenplay by Moira Buffini, based on Posy Simmonds' graphic novel that first appeared as an illustrated serial in The Guardian.
If you detect the whiff of a classic plot in the movie's shenanigans, you're right: Tamara Drewe is a lightly comic update of Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd. (Simmonds' earlier graphic novel, also serialized in The Guardian, was called Gemmy Bovery.) For those who know the novel, or remember the 1967 film adaptation, Tamara is Bathsheba (Julie Christie), Andy is Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates), Nicholas is a nastier version of William Boldwood (Peter Finch), Ben is Sgt. Frank Tracy (Terence Stamp) with a beat you can dance to, and Jody is the lovelorn Fanny Robin (Prunella Ransome). There's something for English majors and classic-film lovers, as well as for seekers of a randy good time.
So here's my second and final verdict on the movie: it's as captivating as its heroine before she had her nose job. That's no crucial blemish. Even a beaky creature like this one has enough wit and charm to win over audiences, whatever the venue or time of year.