Stephen Frears' new film Tamara Drewe is joyous. From the first witty shot on would-be writers in a writers' colony in a small village in England, discussing their would-be publications over dinner, to the penultimate scene of a herd of cows charging towards an adulterer laid flat in the mud, the film makes you laugh out loud -- not a small feat in a festival of gloomy films.
The story: a Plain Jane (Tamara Drewe) returns to her native village with a nose-job and gets the sexual interest of the owner of the writer's colony (the aforementioned adulterer), a rock star and a pining high school flame.
The film dashes between the characters with allegria, from one village locale to another, the stone roads, the manor, the fields, all the actors equally exuberant.
Two key characters are a pair of adorably adolescent girls, who sit at the bus-stop and fantasize about seducing rock stars -- and jump on a bed with glee when they get one. As Frears later told me, he upped their role from the graphic novel -- by Posy Simmonds -- on which the film is based. "Those girls are fantastic," he opined with a grin.
And a symbol of the film: an adolescent fantasy of how life can be thrilling, with dreams come true and appropriate endings. Each character meets the requisite reward, from the cow-stampede for the adulterer to true love for the Plain Janes, both the girl next door and cheated-on homely wife.
The girls also play into the deeper theme -- if there is a deeper theme -- of what makes for good art. Great fabulators, they are even better "writers" than the writers themselves. "They actually tell the truth, don't they?" Frears quipped, referring to the writers' debate whether "the basis of all excellence is truth." After all, the girls spy on the adulterer and take pictures.
"But if I was going to say I was in favor of telling the truth," he added. "I would be lying."
What is refreshing is that Stephen Frears does not even pretend that his film has any meaning beyond its exuberance. "I just had good fun," he said over lunch at the Carlton Beach beachside restaurant. "A good laugh."
I asked him if he was strategic in creating such a tour-de-force of vitality: how he conceived his shots.
"Strategic! Not at all! When the thing comes out of the stomach, John Hurt says, 'it is going to come out of the stomach.' Okay, I was strategic with the cows. I figured out a way to drive them down the hill."
As for pretensions to being an auteur director, he added: "I was not brought up as an auteur. My father was a doctor and he went to work 52 weeks a year. I grew up thinking this is just what a man does. He works. So do I." He confided that he would also have done well with the old studio system, of having a film simply assigned to you.
Later, when I could not figure out how to use my camera, he joked: "That's because you're being strategic."