In 2010, comic book movies were already big, but it would be two years before the first Avengers movie would hit theaters and they became an unstoppable force. So it was an ideal time for Tamara Drewe, a movie that was, and still very much is, an exception to the rules of the genre. Originally a collection of comic strips by Posy Simmonds that was also a loose reworking of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel Far from the Madding Crowd, the movie itself is not only very female-centric, it’s strictly rooted in the real world. There’s no villain trying to destroy the universe, and there’s precious little violence. Instead, people are quietly living their lives in Ewedown, a small town in the English countryside.
Ewedown is mostly made up of struggling locals and the much more well-off guests at a writer’s retreat run by the successful crime novelist Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam) and his wife of 25 years, Beth Hardiment (Tamsin Greig). With the exception of the Hardiments’ visitors, everyone seems bored, from Nicholas himself to the local schoolgirls who spend their time hanging out, reading tabloids, and egging passing cars. Beth and Nicholas are soon revealed to have the stereotypical artist marriage. Nicholas is a serial philanderer who takes Beth for granted, only for far more than your average long-suffering wife. Beth not only runs the retreat almost single-handedly, she also plays a large part in bringing his books to life, and even came up with the name of the detective character Nicholas owes his success to.
Nicholas even muses that he wishes he could get distracted, and a big one arrives in the form of Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton), who’s returned to her childhood estate right next to the retreat after the death of her mother. When the locals last saw her, she was an awkward, gangly teen with a nose so huge it earned her the nickname Beaky. Now the prodigal daughter has returned as a beautiful woman with a successful writing career and a whole new nose. Romantic chaos ensues, in a far more enjoyable fashion than the graphic novel it’s based on.
The source material is darker, literally, with plenty of grey tones, but it’s also dour. No character, except perhaps Andy Cobb (Luke Evans), the gardener who loved Tamara as a teen and thinks her new look took away her character, is truly enjoyable. Everyone else falls into the category of petty or pushover, and what commentary there is on women and modern feminism is referred to in short conversations by various characters rather than explored. The movie knows how to keep the commentary and ramp up the humor, especially by giving a pair of local schoolgirls Casey (Charlotte Christie) and Jody (Jessica Barden) the spotlight sooner rather than later in the story. Tamara Drewe may drive the action, but they steal the show.
Casey, and especially Jody, are envious of Tamara’s successful life, especially when she attracts the attention of Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper) a drummer from a band they both love. Soon Casey and Jody are sneaking in to Tamara’s house when she’s away, at first just to gaze longingly at the trappings of her seemingly glamorous life, then becoming bolder as they take souvenirs, even sending a risque email to several people on Tamara’s contacts list from her computer. This implodes Tamara”s engagement to Ben, driving him back into the arms of his pregnant ex, the woman he originally bought Tamara’s ring for.
This leads Tamara to start an affair with Nicholas, and how it begins is the most significant departure from the graphic novel. In the source material, Tamara is far more self-assured and sees the affair as a casual fling, and a way to improve her writing. In the movie, Tamara is at her most vulnerable. Her fiance has just left her, and when she goes looking for Andy, she sees him in the arms of another woman. Nicholas shows up soon after she’s just witnessed this, when she’s almost in tears.
Because it would be more accurate to say it’s Tamara’s insecurities which drive the plot. The connection she has with Andy is consistent and obvious throughout the film, even as she rejects him. Tamara isn’t interested in the attention she once received, but rather, in the type she was never deemed worthy of. She’s in a common conundrum women face. Before her nose job, Tamara was written off as being unworthy of notice. Once she got it and conformed to conventional beauty standards, she was deemed worthy of male attention, but not respect. Few seem to take her writing seriously.
Glen (Bill Camp), another writer at the retreat who is able to appreciate Beth and slowly forms a romantic connection of his own with her, is especially dismissive when Tamara speaks to him about her ambitions. Glen replies, “Your first novel? You’re going to dash one off just like that?” He then mentions a swimwear collection, a chat show and pasta sauce, concluding, “Life sure comes easy for the beautiful.” Tamara fires back, “You know, before I had the nose job I had no problem being taken seriously. Maybe when they removed that bit of cartilage they pulled out my brain by mistake. What do you think?”
However, it’s Jody who gets the best lines, and who also makes Tamara suffer for her own insecurities. When Tamara is seeing Ben, she says indignantly, “How come she gets Ben? I’ve loved him since March!” She is horny the way only bored teenagers can be. “If he met me, if he just met me…” she muses.
“It’d be love, right?” her friend Casey asks.
“Yeah, but I’d settle for sex,” Jody replies.
When Casey and Jody discover Tamara’s affair with Nicholas, it drives them, or rather Jody, to even greater lengths. Not only does Tamara have the life Jody so desperately craves, away from the hometown she finds so stifling, she now sees her as a woman akin to the one Jody’s father left her and her mother for. Casey and Jody are the ones who find proof of the relationship, then reveal it to Beth, who is something more complex than a martyred wife. In a climactic moment, she attends one of her husband’s Q&A’s asks, “Why do you cheat persistently on your wife?” He responds, “Because she lets me.” We don’t lose compassion for her, but we are also reminded that is was her choice to suffer through this for years.
It’s complex stuff for a movie based on a comic book (especially one that has two sheep copulating on the cover). Plenty of films try to explore the plight of the woman beside-and sometimes forced behind-the man who soaks up all the praise and attention from a process the wife was heavily involved in. Tamara Drewe doesn’t just uniquely explore this kind of relationship, it explores it through several different female perspectives. That doesn’t come without its flaws though; all its perspectives are firmly grounded in white heteronormativity. Screenwriter Moira Buffini wouldn’t exactly expand on this in Jane Eyre and Byzantium, the other major films she would go on to write, but rather in Harlots, the Hulu series she would co-create about prostitutes in 18th century London. Certainly Tamara Drewe comes closest to emulating the appreciation Harlots so clearly has for chaos, both romantic and otherwise.
There was an attempt to recapture this spirit in 2014 with Gemma Bovery, which was an adaptation of another Posy Simmonds graphic novel inspired by a classic novel, in this case Madame Bovary. Gemma Arterton once again played the title character, but the film featured a new writer and director, and not nearly as much charm as Tamara. A great lead isn’t enough when there’s just not much to your story, and there’s precious little of the kind of lively comic relief Casey and Jody provided. So if you think every comic book movie is the same, give Tamara Drewe a watch. Much like its heroine, it demands to be noticed.