Director Stephen Frears has known graphic novelist Posy Simmonds long enough to forget exactly how they met, only that it was about three decades ago. For years, he had followed her quirky comic musings on rural English life, fame and the general discontent of writers in her popular British newspaper comic strip, "Tamara Drewe." But adapting the comic into a film? That he never saw coming.
"It never crossed my mind that you could make a film with it until I got the script," Frears said on a recent swing through Los Angeles on his way to Telluride and then the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film played over the weekend. "Posy is such a brilliant woman. Everything about the story was coherent, so I found it very, very inspiring … actually liberating. Because it was what I call a cartoon, you could leave bits out — I loved that you didn't have to do the boring things."
"Tamara Drewe," which stars Gemma Arterton, plays with the notion of British traditions in a contemporary world, generational frictions and what happens to the English countryside when the rich and the artistically edgy start mucking around.
The film opens as Tamara has come home to the small farming community where she was raised to have a look at the property that her late mother left her. Now she's a big-city writing success whose once-prominent nose has been whittled down to pert perfection. The neighboring farm is a writers' retreat run by a famous — and famously unfaithful — mystery novelist played by veteran British character actor Roger Allam, and his saint of a wife, Beth (Tamsin Greig).
The 69-year-old director, with many classic films to his credit including 2006's "The Queen" with its multiple Oscar nominations and a win for lead Helen Mirren, knew many of the actors in the cast well. Arterton, though, was new to him, and it was critical to get Tamara right since she's the eye of this storm.
"I'd never seen her, but I'd been told she was a very good actress," he said of their first meeting. "She came in the room and was gorgeous and really bewitching. You just get an immediate sense of somebody that warm and touching — she was absolutely lovely."
Getting the right tone was equally important, with "playful" the operative word. He thought "Tamara Drewe," whose script was written by Moira Buffini, should be a sort of fun fable for the actors to make and audiences to watch. (Buffini followed "Tamara Drewe" with the latest film adaptation of "Jane Eyre." Due out next spring, it stars Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender, with "Sin Nombre's" Cary Fukunaga directing.)
"I like the writer to be on the set, particularly with a film like this, which has to do with jokes. You're just constantly refining them," Frears said. "We'd work out what the scene was, she would go write it and put jokes in. We were constantly rewriting — saying, 'Look, you can do this shorter, you can do this quicker, if you turn it around and have that bit before that bit.' Only by having that sort of control can it appear spontaneous."
If you break the film down, it's really a series of clashes linked in unexpected ways. A key case in point: The fight between the novelist and his wife over his latest indiscretion ends up reconnecting him with Tamara, who had a crush on him growing up. She's in the throes of a hot affair with her new rock-star beau (Dominic Cooper), but they're fighting over the city versus the country life. The novelist is a nice diversion.
The ripples from these minor wars end up involving all the writers at the retreat, a couple of school girls with a major thing for Tamara's rock star, the local handyman hunk, a pretty barmaid, an out-of-control boxer and a herd of dairy cows. Before you know it, the walls come tumbling down.
There's a lot of smart talk throughout the film. Particularly engaging are teens Jody and Casey, played by a feisty Jessica Barden with Charlotte Christie as her tentative best friend. Barden's Jody, in particular, seems like a real kid, dripping with disaffection at just how lame most adults are and more than able to put those observations in caustic terms.
As for finding kids with that authenticity and, as important, without the all-too-common Hollywood precociousness of youngsters on the casting circuit, Frears said: "Well, that comes from God. And if they were irritating, I wouldn't cast them." But then, that's a basic Frears rule, as he so succinctly put it: "Don't cast someone you want to smack."
At the end of the day, "Tamara Drewe" was, Frears said, one of his favorite films to make. "It had a charmed life, this film. The weather was suddenly miraculously good, the actors were a delight, it was a joy to shoot and the cows did just what they were told to do."