TIFF: Stephen Frears Sends No Laurels to (Thomas) Hardy

Toronto entry “Tamara Drewe” is loosely based on “Far from the Madding Crowd,” but its director just cared about the laughs

“Every two years I come out of a cave and blink in the sunlight and have the world explained to me,” said Stephen Frears, whose latest excursion into the daylight is the comedy “Tamara Drewe,” which screened out of competition at Cannes and premieres at Toronto on Sunday night.

Stephen FrearsThe film, an adaptation of a Posy Simmonds graphic novel about a young woman who stirs passions in the small town where she grew up when she returns to town after a nose job and falls into a relationship with a passing rock star, is vaguely based on Thomas Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd,” though the connections are hard to see and completely uninteresting to 69-year old director, whose career ranges from “My Beautiful Laundrette” and “Sammy and Rosie Get Laid” to “Dangerous Liasons,” “The Grifters” and, most recently, “The Queen.”

“You’ll find people who want to talk about Hardy, but I’m not one of them,” scoffed Frears to theWrap. “I just did the jokes.”

That’s a typical comment for the relentlessly matter-of-fact director. He thought the script was funny and sexy, so he did it … He pulled together an ensemble cast and let them get to work … He trusted his instincts in finding the right tone … He tried to capture the look of the graphic novel, except when he didn’t.

“You just get on with it, really,” he said. “And the truth is, in the end everything was decided because the weather chose to be miraculously, unnaturally wonderful. If the weather had been bad, we’d still be shooting.”

“Tamara Drewe” was financed with English, French and American money, and picked up by Sony Pictures Classics, which has brought nine films to Toronto. The film has won largely admiring reviews, with some notable exceptions. (Jeff Wells called it "my most unpleasant viewing" of Cannes.) 

Frears’ cast includes Gemma Atherton in the title role, Dominic Cooper as the rocker and Roger Allam and Tamsin Greig as a novelist and his wife who run a writers’ retreat in a bucolic British village. None of the characters, who also include an American academic (Bill Camp) and a pair of troublemaking British schoolgirls (Jessica Barden and Charlotte Christie) are particularly likeable … but they’re entertaining, which Frears said is the whole point.

“Why has liking characters become so important?” he said dismissively. “It never used to be. Are they interesting?That’s all that ever mattered.”

(Photo by Peter Mountain/Sony Pictures Classics)