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Dirty Pretty Flings

Tamara Drewe (2010)

Peter Mountain/Sony Pictures Classics

"Tamara Drewe" contains, in one handy parcel, all which the English celebrate in middle-class life: wine and cheese at an author signing in a local bookshop; chickens being hand-reared at the back of the garden; horsey women with shotguns and wellies; a thriving village pub/bed-and-breakfast with a cheerful Aussie manageress; organic, locally grown food. The movie, with cinematography by Ben Davis, looks great, too: It never rains; the partial nudity is tastefully done; and when clothes are worn, they're perfectly ironed. This film captures exactly a middle-class fantasy of life within the English countryside. This is not a bad thing, as safe middle-classness is rarely depicted, much less celebrated, in British media; the reverse of life as known in this film was last year's "Better Things." "Tamara Drewe" is a gentle satire without being mean-spirited, which is a difficult tone to maintain; and as far as comedy goes, it's actually quite good in its understated fashion.

Tamara (Gemma Arterton) herself grew up in the English-rose — and fictional — village of Ewedown in Dorset, but moved away for a career as a journalist. Her mother dies, so Tamara comes back to get her old house ready to sell. She reintroduces herself to the neighbors, including Nicholas (Roger Allam) and Beth Hardiment (Tamsin Greig). Nicholas, a successful crime novelist/sleazebag, and Beth, his amanuensis/doormat, also run a writers' retreat, where Glen (Bill Camp) keeps returning. Jack-of-all-trades Andy (Luke Evans) does odd jobs for the Hardiments and also remembers Tamara from school, ahem; he is also the uncle of teenage Casey (Charlotte Christie) who sometimes helps out with the writers, but spends most of her time with best friend Jody (Jessica Barden) hanging out in the abandoned bus shelter, reading gossip magazines. Finally, Tamara's arrival coincides with an interview with rising rock star Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper), who is recognized instantly by Jody and Casey when he arrives.

The village was hardly drama-free before Tamara came back, especially when the writers — including choice but undeveloped cameos for Bronagh Gallagher and Pippa Haywood — get front row seats in various domestic dramas at the Hardiments. But it's fair to say that Tamara's reappearance is the cat among the pigeons. The movie busies itself with three important questions: Will Jody ever get to declare her love to Ben? Will Nicholas stop being such a bastard? And will Tamara ever figure out what she really wants?

This is not handled flawlessly. Moira Buffini adapted the screenplay from the graphic novel (originally a weekly newspaper strip) by Posy Simmonds, which was itself loosely based on Thomas Hardy's "Far from the Madding Crowd." English women have more choice now than the 1870s, making it all the more regrettable Tamara is such a pencil sketch. Ms. Arterton has fretted publicly about the already famed jean shorts and if they overshadow the rest of her performance. They do, but that is the point. As Tamara effortlessly seduces her way across the village, she is the plot catalyst for everyone else, and her own characterization is of secondary importance. Her unnamed mother's death is a convenient plot device and nothing more, which is a curiously missed opportunity to give her depth. Only a few scenes show her working, whether as a writer or on the house, so we learn little about her professional life. And despite the movie's focus on her relationships, Tamara's actual feelings are barely in the film. Ms. Arterton is an open, winning presence, but it's a shame no undercurrents are ever introduced and a surprise that director Stephen Frears so has sloppily handled his title character.

Fortunately, Beth and Jody are drawn with more detail. It's immediately clear Beth has poured her ambitions and talents into her husband's career, and is a seething, silently resentful mess. The set decoration by Tina Jones in Beth's kitchen surpasses itself — everything seems to be from John Lewis, also known as one-stop middle-class shopping heaven — and sunk into the main counter is a very long knife rack. Nothing more dramatic than an onion is ever sliced, but the blades are a visual metaphor for Beth's unvoiced turmoil. One of the greatest actresses in Britain, Ms. Greig has made a career of playing lovelorn single women in TV sitcoms and it's wonderful to see her take this chance and run with it. In contrast, Jody makes things happen for herself and others, with that peculiar teenage mix of hopefulness, heedlessness and boredom. Ms. Barden is a bright spark and a terrific new acting discovery.

The men are definitely secondary. Mr. Allam, who is best known for playing cosseted creeps, smears his oily charms over most of the film. Mr. Cooper's rock star is a charming, petulant and surprisingly decent presence, but where he should sizzle he limply fizzles out. Mr. Evans' shirtless torso is the opening view of the film, which sets the tone nicely; but Luke has little to do other than carry messages for others, fret over emails and drink cups of tea in the pub. Finally, Mr. Camp's constipated American writer demonstrates perfectly how the English tolerate without welcoming outsiders in their midst, and how the snubbing is so carefully done the outsiders rarely realize.

Mr. Frears has now completed an up-and-down tour of the major preoccupations of English life. "Dirty Pretty Things" captured the grubby reality of cash-in-hand London the way no other major film has before or since. "Mrs. Henderson Presents" did the war, then "The Queen's" depiction of the uppermost class left only the middle class. It's gotten some terrible reviews in Britain, but these are due either to it hitting too close to home for the middle-class broadsheet critics, or the class resentment of their counterparts in the tabloids. It looks like Mr. Frears' next project will be about a female gambler in Las Vegas; this should be a good palate cleanser as he decides what piece of England to depict next.


Opens on Sept. 10 in Britain and on Oct. 8 in New York and Los Angeles.

Directed by Stephen Frears; written by Moira Buffini, based on the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds; director of photography, Ben Davis; edited by Mick Audsley; music by Alexandre Desplat; production design by Alan Macdonald; costumes by Consolata Boyle; produced by Alison Owen, Paul Trijbits and Tracey Seaward; released by Sony Pictures Classics (United States) and Momentum Pictures (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Gemma Arterton (Tamara Drewe), Roger Allam (Nicholas Hardiment), Bill Camp (Glen McCreavy), Dominic Cooper (Ben Sergeant), Luke Evans (Andy Cobb), Jessica Barden (Jody Long), Charlotte Christie (Casey Shaw) and Tamsin Greig (Beth Hardiment).


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