Tamara Drewe, showing at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, is based on a graphic novel about UK country life, says the director Stephen Frears.
Tamara Drewe was 'liberating', says Frears
While most comic book adaptations feature men in Spandex saving the world, Tamara Drewe is set in the English countryside and is about a young journalist's attempt to find love and save herself. This explains why Stephen Frears rather than, say, Brian Singer is sitting in the director's chair.
The mercurial British director hops genres with regularity, so it's no surprise to see him do an English country drama. His CV includes the 1980s romance My Beautiful Laundrette, the period drama Dangerous Liaisons, the Nick Hornby adaptation High Fidelity and The Queen, which won Helen Mirren an Oscar for her portrait of the British monarch. Tamara Drewe , which is showing at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, stars Gemma Arterton as the protagonist returning to her village as her family home goes on the market. She also wants to realise her ambition of writing a novel based on her childhood experiences.
The character, created by the cartoonist, writer and illustrator of children's books, Rosemary Elizabeth "Posy" Simmonds, started life as part of a serial in The Guardian in 2005 before it was collected into graphic novel form. The Leicester-born director says the artist is an old friend. "I've known Posy for about 30 or 40 years. I used to read the serial in The Guardian, but I never thought it would make a good film, just as I read High Fidelity and thought, 'I'm not interested in making a film of this.' It's only when the script arrives that I think, 'Yes this is possible.' Somebody comes to you with a script and you think, 'Oh I see how that could work.'"
Frears says he's ashamed of his inability to see the potential in many stories just from reading the source material, but at the same time he seems delighted that he can now say he's adapted a graphic novel. "The fact that it was a graphic novel was very interesting, incredibly liberating. There was no excuse to be long-winded or meander all over the place, because Posy had been so concise, and you knew the goal you were aiming for and the drawings were so precise you couldn't improve on them."
This is the fourth film in a row in which the Cambridge law school graduate has had a woman as the principle protagonist. Mrs Henderson Presents, The Queen and Cheri were the others, but he says the gender of the lead has little to do with his decision to make the film.
"It was very, very fresh," he says of Tamara Drewe. "When I made the first Tony Blair film, The Queen, it seemed very, very fresh, it was such a relief to find something new. It's a relief for me, it's a relief for the audience and it's a relief for everybody, hopefully! In all seriousness, I do think I've got better! You try new things because it keeps you young. I'm always better when I'm unexpected. I'm always better when nobody expects anything at all; when they expect a lot I'm sunk, I'm a disaster."
Luke Evans, who plays a dashing farmer, says of Frears: "He's very specific. He's a man of few words as you've probably just worked out, but the thing about Stephen is that what he says is not just filler; he's not just filling silence. You've got to get in the mode of understanding him as an actor, when you do it's just brilliant. Sometimes when we were on set, we'd do a scene and he'd just come up to me and whisper something in my ear and just walk away, and I'd think what did he just say, what did he mean? And then we'd do the scene and I'd realise I'd understood what he had said, because it wasn't necessarily literal. That's why people call him the actor's director, because he makes you work for it, he helps you to try to discover something of yourself, instead of just feeding it to you."
Tamara Drewe is a broad comedy about the shenanigans of English village life. Among the characters are a famous author who holds writing events, a couple of naughty schoolgirls, an on-edge rock drummer and the dashing farmer, who was Tamara's childhood sweetheart and still carries a torch for her. The tone of the comedy is heightened and much more broad than anything the director has attempted before.
"What I realised is what everyone likes about British comedy is our eccentricity," he says. "What audiences around the world really like is Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers and you think, 'I've actually been wasting my life [doing other types of comedy].' We are, alas, mad. Those Ealing comedies are imprinted on my mind. I can't get them out of my brain. When I was a child you loved it when an Ealling comedy came out."
It was weekend trips to the movies with his mother during the Second World War that first got Frears interested in cinema. They would see mainly English romantic films because there were few foreign titles around at the time. Even American films rarely made their way across the Atlantic, and Frears vividly remembers the excitement when the classic Howard Hawks western Red River was shown in Britain in 1948.
Red River is about a man moving his cattle and its influence on Tamara Drewe can be seen in a pivotal scene that features a herd of stampeding cows. It was a tricky one to pull off, admits the director: "If you look at Red River, which I've done a lot, the cowboys are driving the cattle. The ones who are actually trying to stop the cattle stampeding are driving the cattle on. What was difficult with this was that it was just cattle on their own that were stampeding."
The fact that Tamara Drewe has something of the Ealing sensibility was unintentional. "I can see it now," says Frears. "I didn't at the time, but I can vaguely see now that it's in the tradition of The Ladykillers and Kind Hearts and Coronets."
It makes a nice change from the current conception of British cinema. Modern British films are famous for being gritty dramas of the kitchen-sink variety, with characters living on the margins of society. Frears has a theory as to why there are not many films about the middle classes made in Britain: "We don't make films about the bourgeoisie. Generally speaking, all the filmmakers are from the bourgeoisie - me, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, we are all bourgeois." And, he adds: "The English bourgeoisie doesn't really like itself, and is uncomfortable and embarrassed by their good fortune and their stupidity."
All the same, Frears has increasingly seemed comfortable making films about the better-off. Cheri and The Queen came before Tamara Drewe and it seems that if ever he felt self-conscious about his place in the world, that is no longer the case.
Details of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival can be found at www.dohafilminstitute.com/filmfestival.