Monday, May. 17, 2010

Cannes: Tamara Drewe to the Rescue!

The directors who fill out each year's Cannes Film Festival lineup often seem to belong to the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. They've compiled distinguished résumés with movies made in their creative primes; then in midcareer or so, they're invited to Cannes — and invited back, and back. Once you've joined the club, you're pretty much issued a lifetime pass, no matter how old you get, how pensive or creaky your new work.

This year, especially, Cannes is the country for old men. The senior member is Manoel de Oliveira, who at 101 presented The Strange Case of Angelica; he is accompanied, just in the first six days of films, by the directors of Robin Hood (Ridley Scott, 72), Another Year (Mike Leigh, 67), You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (Woody Allen, 74), The Princess of Montpensier (Bertrand Tavernier, 69), Film Socialism (Jean-Luc Godard, 80 in December) and Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 70 in June). We've got nothing against a Golden Boys senior circuit — we could name a dozen film critics here who'd qualify for membership, at least in terms of age — but it does mean that this gorgeous Riviera resort, full of young people with movie-star good looks, will play host to a slate of films about death and decay. Among the hallowed auteurs, you'll find few enfants.

But at least today, there's one Enfin! — French for "Finally!" and Corliss for "Hallelujah!" It's Tamara Drewe. Its director, Stephen Frears, will be 69 in a few weeks, and he's been making films since 1969, alternating quirky Brit indies (Gumshoe, My Beautiful Laundrette, The Van, Dirty Pretty Things, The Queen) with higher-budget star vehicles for American actors (Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Liaisons, Dustin Hoffman in Hero, Julia Roberts in Mary Reilly). Frears' films are exactly as good as their scripts; he's one of the last and most honorable directors for hire. And here he has a witty, twisty script by Moira Buffini, based on Posy Simmonds' graphic novel that first appeared as an illustrated serial in the Guardian. I find it hard to avoid the word delightful, so I won't, for the movie is a capricious, delicious delight.

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 pornography 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). Tamara, once mocked for her big nose — the villagers called her Beaky — has returned as a rhinoplastic bombshell. Now everyone wants to bed her: Andy, her true destined lover; Nicholas, because she's there; and Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper), a rock-band drummer pining over the loss of his female singer to the band's guitarist. Ben's would-be inamorata is the sweet-faced, 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 shaggings. Expect revelatory phone photos, intimate conversations overheard in toilets and, oh, a fatal stampede of cows.

If you detect the whiff of a classic plot in these 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 Gemmy Bovery.) So there's something for English majors as well as seekers of a good time in this wisely played, acutely attuned entertainment. The film is both surprising in the advances of its plot and reassuring in the perfect pitch of the acting ensemble.

Arteron has said that on the set, Frears would consider the cast's smart caperings and moan, in mock mortification, "Oh God, I used to be a serious director!" The Cannes selectors must think the same thing; they pushed Tamara Drewe out of the main competition into midday screenings in a sidebar event. But that's the competition's loss. Halfway through the festival, Tamara is at the head of the class and proof that an old dog like Frears can still make a movie perform some pretty cute tricks.