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  M.   October 14, 2010

LONDON — Early in “Tamara Drewe,” the title character walks with insolent lusciousness down the road to meet her neighbors, gathered at a writers’ retreat in rural Dorset. Wearing an innocent expression and a near-pornographic ensemble consisting of a red tank top and a pair of cutoff shorts so brief they leave uncovered a healthy portion of her rear end, she sends a frisson of excitement — or irritation, depending — through the group.

That is just her opening gambit.

Tamara, portrayed by Gemma Arterton, has a way of discomfiting and disrupting the lives of others, including Nicholas (Roger Allam), an egomaniacal, serially adulterous author of best-selling thrillers; Beth (Tamsin Greig), his hyper-efficient, put-upon wife; Andy (Luke Evans), their hunky gardener; and Ben (Dominic Cooper, looking chronically undershowered), a sexy, snarling, not-too-smart rock star.

By the end of the film there will have been illicit liaisons. There will have been missed connections, forged messages, serious misunderstandings. One character will have died, in an undignified but poetically just way. Morality will have prevailed. And if any of this seems vaguely familiar, it is because “Tamara Drewe,” which opens Friday and began its life as a graphic novel, is loosely modeled on Thomas Hardy’s classic tale of bucolic melodrama, “Far From the Madding Crowd.” (Tamara is, roughly, Bathsheba; Ben corresponds to Sergeant Troy, using drumsticks, not swordplay, for seduction.)

The movie makes only glancing references to the original source — one of the writers at the retreat, Glen (the American actor Bill Camp), is working on a book about Hardy — and they are there for fun more than anything.

“I borrowed the six principal characters and some twists of plot,” says Posy Simmonds, the author of the graphic novel. “It’s the same setup, with a beautiful woman and three guys. If people know the book, it’s a little bit extra. And if they don’t, it doesn’t matter.”

The film, directed by Stephen Frears (“The Queen”) in his usual hard-to-pin-down style, is lighter than Simmonds’ book, and might best be described as a comedy with a bit of darkness laced through. Its sharp script takes on, among other things, the egotism of established writers and the desperation of unpublished ones; the sometimes alluring vapidity of celebrities; and the hidden menacing nature of cows.

But its success rises and falls on the appeal of Arterton, late of the James Bond film “Quantum of Solace” and “The Prince of Persia.”

Tamara is a London journalist who writes a column and dabbles in celebrity interviews. Beset by self-doubt despite (or perhaps because of) a recent nose job that has turned her from interestingly gawky to drop-dead gorgeous, she derives her self-love from the love of men but fails to appreciate the extent of her new power. She must be irresistible enough for plot plausibility, yet not so thoughtless — and not so sure of herself — that she loses the audience’s sympathies.

“There was a lot of discussion about how tortured she should be,” Frears says in an interview at a cafe in the Notting Hill area of West London, down the street from the laundromat called My Beautiful Laundrette, a neighborhood homage to his 1985 movie. “You want her to be able to have a good time, not endlessly walking around grief stricken.”

Famously inarticulate about his methods (“You do it on instinct, really,” he says), Frears is wearing shorts and a seen-better-days shirt with a pair of sandals, his hair a vision of chaos. An assistant hovers at his elbow, trying to get him to focus on his schedule for the next few months.

Frears met Arterton on the advice of his casting director and hired her right then, without having seen any of her movies. She looks a lot like Simmonds’ drawings of Tamara, which helped.

“The minute she sat down, I said, ‘If she’s any good, cast her,’ ” Frears recalls. Arterton relates: “I went along, and literally he said, ‘You look like her,’ and he just cast me on the spot.”

“I felt quite awkward,” she adds. “I said, ‘Don’t you want to see me act?’ But I just love the piece, and I was really thrilled.”

Tamara was indeed a tricky part, she says, though a nice antidote to some of the comic sex-kitten roles she has become known for. But though she didn’t always like or approve of Tamara, she grew to understand her.

“She is a bit of a homewrecker,” Arterton says. “She’s like Bathsheba” — that is, the Hardy character — “a floozy and a strumpet who flirts with everybody.”

At the same time, “she has this huge facade, which ultimately gets her in so much trouble, but deep down she’s a good person.” She fought hard, she says, to make sure Tamara’s fragility came through. “In the original script you didn’t see any of that, but now there are a couple of moments when you see that she’s really lonely, that she just needs love and protection.”

Tamara blunders into trouble rather than stepping knowingly into it. Arterton based her depiction on an actress she knows who actually had a nose job as a teenager and “is really beautiful, always captures all these guys, but is absolutely miserable and hopeless.”

Of Tamara, Arterton says: “Everyone else sees her as beautiful, but she doesn’t see it like that. People’s perception is of this confident, charming, ambitious woman, but she’s just a kind of geek who doesn’t know how to live life.”

With the original “Tamara Drewe,” which was heavy on plot and combined soap-opera turns with an unexpected poignancy, the filmmakers had a built-in storyboard and have adhered surprisingly closely to Simmonds’ physical depiction of the characters and the setting.

The plot has been streamlined, with some things left out and others tweaked. Beth, the maligned wife, is overweight and gray-haired in Simmonds’ book; she is foxier, though still obviously downtrodden, in the film. More crucially, the film has spared a character who was killed off by Simmonds.

Arterton’s physique in the film, the one that launches a thousand mishaps, is voluptuous and unexercised — playing more to the European than the American movie-star ideal.

“If you’re playing someone who’s fit or whatnot, then I can see it,” Arterton says of the need to work out. “But for me, I find it much more interesting to have energy to put into the work rather than spending all morning at the gym and being exhausted.”

What about the short shorts, which feature prominently in the film’s poster and trailer, and which give rise to a memorable joke in the movie, when Beth sees Tamara in them for the first time?

They were not the only pair Arterton tried on, and they were the ones she liked the least (for the record, she would have gone with a snug but more modest pair of culottes, sadly rejected).

“I really hated those shorts,” Arterton says. “I was mortified. But now they’re in the promotional shot, on the poster. And the joke wouldn’t work if they’re not completely up my bum.”

By Sarah Lyall

New York Times
Posted: 10/14/2010 12:00:00 AM PDT