You don't need to be a fan of Thomas Hardy to get the jokes in Stephen Frears' Tamara Drewe. Nor do you need to be familiar with Posey Simmonds' graphic novel of the same name.
All it takes is a sense of the essential silliness of human vanity and a taste for the vain receiving a much-needed comeuppance. Oh, and a well-cultivated sense of the absurd helps as well.
Adapted loosely from Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd, Tamara Drewe's title character is a British newspaper columnist who returns to her family home in a rural English village after her mother's death to get it ready to sell. Once an ugly duckling, Tamara (Gemma Arterton) has been transformed by a nosejob and the loss of a few pounds - as well as her urban attitude.
She's the object, it seems, of the lust of every man within spitting distance. For starters, there's local handyman Andy Cobb (Luke Evans), her one-time flame who also tormented her as a youth. Tamara quickly has a boyfriend in tow - a rock star named Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper). But she also attracts the attention - is it pheromones? - of local celebrity writer Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam), the best-selling author of a successful mystery-novel series who hosts a writers' retreat every summer at his sprawling estate.
Actually, it's not Nicholas who hosts it but his hard-working wife, Beth (Tamsin Greig), who has about had it with Nicholas' serial infidelity. Beth, in turn, is comforted by a plodding American academic, Glen (Bill Camp), who is in his umpteenth year of writing a literary biography of - yes, you guessed it - Thomas Hardy.
The wild cards in Moira Buffini's script are a pair of local tweens, Jody (Jessica Barden) and Casey (Charlotte Christie), both of whom are huge fans of Ben Sergeant. Jealous of Tamara's involvement with Ben, they break into her house while she and Ben are out, using her computer to send amorous emails to all of the men in her life. They also get involved in taking and sending digital photos of Tamara and another of her male admirers that triggers various sorts of uproar in Tamara's life and everyone else's.
Frears unfolds all this in a crisp, uncluttered fashion, letting the viewer figure out who's who and what's what. Though there are brief flashbacks - mostly to Tamara's pre-rhinoplasty days - it's all fairly straightforward. The humor crops up unexpectedly, whether in casually cutting remarks (by the pompous Nicholas) or hilariously dumb ones by Ben. And that's not to mention the comedy of manners involving the pedantic Glen and his alternately shy and bold pursuit of the put-upon Beth. Or of Beth's simmering anger over the way Nicholas manipulates and misuses her.
Tamara Drewe is not jokey. While there are nasty one-liners, they're often thrown away, not emphasized. The comedy comes more in the reactions of people: to bad behavior, foolishness and insults. Frears has a skilled cast - particularly Allam as the overripe Nicholas and Camp as the fussed-up Glen, as well as the slow-boiling Tamsin Greig as Beth.
They make this look effortless, even as Frears weaves together a complicated plot into a delightfully varied story. As a result, Tamara Drewe is both smart and funny - a movie that trusts its audience to be as intelligent as the material.