Introduction to Tamara Drewe (2010)
Apparently, Tamara Drewe is out on DVD this week. So here’s an introduction to the film I originally gave at Derby QUAD last September.
These days, if a director doesn’t have a hit movie first time around, they’re lucky to get another shot. Thankfully, this is a recent trend, otherwise Tamara Drewe might not be the latest film from Stephen Frears, one of Britain’s most consistently interesting – and underrated – filmmakers. And he’s an East Midlander to boot.
Although he’s now nearly 70 years old, Frears really did start young. He was Lindsay Anderson’s assistant on 1968’s subversive schoolboy classic If… and something of that film’s refusal to play by the rules appears to have rubbed off on Frears. In an era defined by Hammer Horror, Carry On and the Swinging Sixties, Frears’ directorial debut – Gumshoe – was a wry film noir pastiche set in working class Liverpool and starring a dishevelled, down-at-heel Albert Finney.
However, this was the 1970s, an era when the British film industry was at a low ebb and opportunities were limited. So, like his contemporaries Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, Frears opted for television, becoming a mainstay on the fabled drama strand Play For Today, and directing Ian McKellen in the feature-length film Walter on the opening night of Channel Four.
Occasional movie opportunities arose, like the hugely underrated Costa Del Sol thriller The Hit. But it was My Beautiful Laundrette – originally conceived for TV broadcast but promoted to the big-screen – which served notice that Frears, a veteran in his mid-40s, was the bright new thing in British cinema. With a script by Hanif Kureishi, it was a smart, satirical state-of-the-nation drama about Thatcher’s Britain, and absolutely on the pulse of its times.
Laundrette was also a surprise hit Stateside, with Kureishi’s script earning an Oscar nomination, and bringing Frears to the attention of Hollywood. Frears duly crossed the Atlantic but, remarkably, he maintained the hallmarks of his television work, with its craftsman’s emphasis on serving the script. Dangerous Liaisons, a suitably witty version of de Laclos’ story of cultured swine, was a smash, while producer Martin Scorsese hand-picked Frears to direct a literate adaptation of Jim Thompson’s con man thriller The Grifters.
The Hollywood honeymoon didn’t last and Frears’ 90s films – Accidental Hero, Mary Reilly and The Hi-Lo Country didn’t find their audiences despite A-list casts including the likes of Dustin Hoffman and Julia Roberts. But Frears persevered, dipping back to the British Isles to recharge his batteries with two Irish films based on Roddy Doyle stories, The Van and The Snapper.
Over the last decade, Frears has continued to move effortlessly back and forth between Britain and America, movies and television, wildly unpredictable in his career decisions beyond a love of great writing. As well as de Laclos, Thompson and Doyle he’s adapted Nick Hornby and Colette, made a biopic of Joe Orton, and worked with scripts from major screenwriters Christopher Hampton, Peter Morgan and even Steven Knight, the writer who pens Chris Tarrant’s banter on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
With that versatility, it’s clear that Frears doesn’t see himself as an auteur…but it’s not hard to detect patterns. The big theme in Frears’ movies is passion (and its flipside, repression). The films that made his name, My Beautiful Laundrette and the Joe Orton film, Prick Up Your Ears, were amongst the first mainstream gay love stories in British cinema. Dangerous Liaisons, of course, is a hotbed of sexual intrigue. Mary Reilly is a spin on the duality of Jekyll and Hyde, while High Fidelity about the failed love life of a man more passionate about his record collection.
As Frears has got older, so have his protagonists but the themes remain the same: passion versus repression. In Mrs Henderson Presents, pensioner Judi Dench ignites scandal in wartime London with a raunchy revue show. In The Queen, Helen Mirren’s Majesty fights the baying mob who want her to indulge in an unseemly display of public grief. The latter film’s huge success was a reminder that Frears can make an entertaining, insightful film about somebody very little, bordering on nothing whatsoever. He’s the epitome of that class of English director who is content simply to observe, able to bring out the inner life of characters with a mix of warmth, empathy and a certain sense of irony.
Those elements are to the fore in Tamara Drewe. Amazingly, when seemingly every Hollywood movie is based on a comic, Frears has zoned in on one that’s perfect for his left-wing sensibilities, Posy Simmonds’ none-more-English comic strip about life in a rural village, which was originally serialised in The Guardian. The story is also a thinly disguised, comic update of Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd, which makes it yet another Frears adaptation – like Mary Reilly and High Fidelity – that strays significantly from its original source. Ironically, if this is a radical take on Hardy, as a Posy Simmonds film it’s remarkably respectful. Despite his age, Frears has taken the same pleasure in recreating the punchy visuals of the comic as younger directors like Zack Snyder and Robert Rodriguez have done in Hollywood.
At once timeless and wryly modern, the film is the story of Tamara Drewe’s return to her countryside home, where her presence rubs off on a community of bored layabouts, horny leches and and pretentious writers. With its palpable clash of generations and cultures, it’s like a jollier, apolitical take on the subjects that have driven Frears since My Beautiful Laundrette. Perhaps more pertinently, it’s also been described as “the filthiest possible feature-length episode of The Archers.”
Whether it’s a coincidence or a sly nod to that show’s listeners, it should be noted that one of Ambridge’s longest-serving inhabitants, Tamsin Greig, has a major part here. Meanwhile, the great Roger Allam, looking not unlike Frears himself, anchors proceedings as Greig’s cantankerous husband, the latest in the director’s recent run of great parts for older actors.
Mainly, though, it’s likely to be the younger generation that will benefit from Frears’ Midas touch. Throughout his career, he’s forged a reputation for discovering young actors who would go on to have substantial careers. The likes of Daniel Day Lewis, Gary Oldman, Keanu Reeves, Uma Thurman and Chiwetel Ejiofor all came to prominence in Frears’ films. By those standards, the young stars of Tamara Drewe – Gemma Arterton, Luke Evans and Dominic Cooper – are already reasonably well-known, but this is likely to give them a lift – Arterton, especially.
Since her arrival as head girl at the revamped St Trinian’s, Arterton’s rise as the It Girl of the day has been meteoric. Producers have pigeon-holed her as eye-candy in Clash of the Titans, Prince of Persia and – memorably – as Strawberry Fields, the latest in James Bond’s long line of conquests in Quantum of Solace. But, as this year’s intense thriller The Disappearance of Alice Creed showed, Arterton has range, talent and bravery that’s largely been untapped. Frears was reportedly unaware of who Arterton was before meeting her, so she’s been cast here entirely on merit – and quite possibly the Frears effect will see a significant upswing in the quality of the parts she gets from now on.
As for Frears himself, he shows no signs of slowing down. His next project is rumoured to be Lay The Favourite, Take The Dog, an adaptation of a memoir about a young woman who is drawn into the secretive world of gambling – which, when you think about it, is another kind of passion. Meanwhile, let’s enjoy Frears’ own passions: great writing, great acting and an unpretentious delight in using cinema to entertain.