*Tamara Drewe – Spoiler alert*
Pretension, cinema and posterity rarely prevail as bedfellows. Look at the history of movies. The classics that we watch repeatedly are sophisticated entertainments, usually but not always, loaded with hidden meanings. The movies of Hitchcock are a good example. Praise has been heaped upon ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, ‘The King’s Speech’ and the films of Steve McQueen – ‘Hunger’ and ‘Shame’. Compared to them ‘Tamara Drewe’ is light but like the classic Howard Hawks movie ‘Bringing Up Baby’ it will have more appeal for audiences in thirty years time than puffed up efforts that are determined to be recognised as profound.
The plot of ‘Tamara Drewe’ is a modern version of the Thomas Hardy novel, ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’. This was not his greatest book but it did have the best title because it referred to a lot more than rural retreat. The story is simple. A woman has three men in her life – a dashing soldier, an older but dependent man and finally a practical man that will be supportive. The ending is ambiguous and we read it knowing that Bathsheba has found someone whom she needs to help her survive but not the man who will make her feel fulfilled.
This plot serves ‘Tamara Drewe’ perfectly because it allows the film to entertain and amuse whilst providing a chilling view of human nature. Tamara reconciles herself with Andy, the practical man, by telling him, ‘I need a friend’ so we know that the plot has a romantic conclusion as dubious as that written by Hardy. The movie has had mixed reviews, probably because the happy ending does not reveal moral progress or confirms a heroine who has made decisions rooted in understanding. ‘Tamara Drewe’ is great, though, because it consistently refuses to believe in the worth of human beings. In these days of positive thinking, empathy and emotional intelligence it really is quite refreshing to relax and enjoy nearly two hours of mean spirited misanthropy.
The film has been compared to the novel ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ by Stella Gibbons. This also satirised Thomas Hardy but the aim of the satire by Gibbons was narrower. She lampooned Hardy and our romantic notions about rural life. ‘Tamara Drewe’ has the human race in its sights and it excuses no one. It does not need to offer a landscape with a brutal aspect. The shots of the English countryside are relentlessly beautiful. The people, though, are the same as they are anywhere, inadequate and self-deceiving. Ingmar Bergman has indulged similar ambitions but not with quite so many jokes. Oddly, the humour is not cruel; it merely shows how we are ridiculous. If the movie says anything positive, it is that we all provide amusement for others.
The characters can be criticised as stereotypes but their symbolism confirms that the movie is a satire. The location consists of a writers’ retreat where all the creative talents are narcississtic fantasists. The one successful author describes writers as ‘thieves and liars’. If the creative are hopeless and invariably immoral the practical are boring. The wife of the successful writer who owns the retreat runs an organic farm but this is not an honourable woman who is seeking pastoral integrity. Instead, the movie takes a wide swipe at organic farmers. They may be rural idealists but they are dismissed as isolationists unable to deal with reality, people obliged to seek consolation in industry and imagined purpose. The organic farmer has chickens that are ‘ornamental’ but cannot lay eggs.
Like Bathsheba, Tamara eventually chooses a man who is capable and probably even self-sufficient. He lacks pretension but is an emotional primitive whose youthful sex with Tamara once earned him the accusation of baby snatcher. On bad days, and we all have them, he couples with the local barmaid. She pulls pints like someone milking a sheep. This earthy creature is the alternative to ambition but if ambition is self-deluding so is its alternative and it is clear that the staunch yeoman exploits her as he does his other animals. Anybody who believes the yeoman is the hero needs to think about the scene when he prepares to kill the troublesome dog of his rival. This does not happen but only because twenty yards above him the other loyal member of the village does just that. This aggressive land blessed phoney is what the yeoman will become when he becomes older and stays in the village, narrow and vindictive.
The romantic rival to the yeoman in the novel was a soldier. Sergeant Troy was charismatic but irresponsible. In ‘Tamara Drewe’ the equivalent character plays in a rock band. Tamara thinks he is unusual because he is a drummer who writes songs. Again, as with the writers, this alternative to conformity is no more than an inadequate adolescent with an exaggerated sense of entitlement. Throughout the movie, the alternatives are as awful as what they oppose. The drummer is just one more self-appointed spokesman, another ‘gob on sticks’ as we now say except in his case he is a gob with sticks. Tamara abandons him and because the yeoman is the best of a bad lot there will be some in the audience who mistake the ending but when she says she had to stay in the village because he has ‘made the house so nice’ and the yeoman replies he will now get his ‘old bedroom back’ we know we are watching a clueless couple retreat into childhood.
The conclusion for the drummer is even bleaker. It is his dog that has been killed and this has upset him. The graveyard scene that follows evokes a similar moment in ‘Flaming Star’ when Elvis and his family bury his Native American mother. The drummer has two sociopathic schoolgirl fans and these offer consolation to a hero trapped in an adolescence that mirrors Tamara and her yeoman. The rock star has found his Priscilla and if anybody wants to know why a famous singer would pick a fourteen year old school girl as his soul mate watch the movie. The connection is made even stronger because in an earlier scene the drummer destroys his career when he rages over his rejection by the girl member of the band. He sacrifices his potential because he is unable to retain his lover. These references to Elvis should not be a surprise. The movie is directed by Stephen Frears whose CV includes ‘Long Distance Information’, the BBC film about an Elvis fan which was mentioned on a previous blog.
None of the characters in ‘’Tamara Drewe’ handle rejection well. They fray, find somebody on the rebound or pretend it has not happened. Relationships are begun by sexual predators or those recovering from failure. This is the grim truth. We are as hopeless at love as we are incapable of handling abandonment. ‘Tamara Drewe’ may not be Luis Bunuel or Jonathan Swift but it has a merciless perspective and the laughs never undermine that view. The reference in the film to Hardy as the sexual predator obsessed with young women throughout his life is vital. It suggests Hardy condemned Alex d’Uberville so easily because he was writing about himself. The seduction of Tess is not just a tragedy for Hardy but an irresistible moment. ‘Tamara Drewe’ is a dark film and, if what it says about human beings is true, no wonder Elvis destroyed himself so easily.