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‘Tamara Drewe’ meanders without much focus

It’s Hardy, to be sure. But hardy-har-har? Hardly.

That’s "Tamara Drewe," a tepid adaptation of Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel, beloved in its native Britain for its saucy satire of raging egos — and raging hormones — in rural England.

Ah, but not just any spot in rural England.

"Tamara Drewe" takes place in pastoral Dorset — a place that’s definitely, as everyone keeps reminding themselves (and each other), "far from the madding crowd."

Exactly the place the great English writer Thomas Hardy explored in such literary classics as (you guessed it) "Far From the Madding Crowd."

Just as "Bridget Jones’ Diary" uses Jane Austen’s "Pride and Prejudice" as an inspirational template, so "Tamara Drewe" models itself on "Far From the Madding Crowd," updating characters and relationships, sort of, for intended comic effect. (Simmonds did the same thing with Gustave Flaubert in "Gemma Bovary.")

Yet even if you know and love "Far From the Madding Crowd" — or even if you don’t — you might find "Tamara Drewe’s" updated version lacking a sufficiently light touch to successfully spoof Hardy’s heavy-duty emotions.

More’s the pity, because director Stephen Frears usually displays a steadier hand, regardless of the type of movie he’s directing.

From "The Queen" to "High Fidelity," from "The Grifters" to "Dangerous Liaisons," Frears has demonstrated a definite flair for dissecting specific social spheres with a welcome dash of wit.

In "Tamara Drewe," however, that wit seems rather forced, as Frears and screenwriter Moira Buffini try to keep the story’s interwoven threads from tangling — and strangling all the humor from characters who take themselves oh so seriously.

We’re just outside the village of Ewedown , where eminently successful crime novelist, and enthusiastic philanderer, Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam ) churns out best-sellers while his devoted wife, Beth (Tamsin Greig ), devotes herself to creating the perfect writer’s environment.

Not just for Nicholas, mind you, but for an entire colony of literary types who take refuge at the writer’s colony on their farm, among them an American academic (Bill Camp) toiling on an epic critical study devoted to — wait for it — Thomas Hardy.

As for "Tamara Drewe’s" title temptress (Gemma Arterton), she’s just returned to Ewedown from swinging London, where she’s a successful journalist, to see to the sale of the family manse.

Once upon a time, Tamara was Ewedown’s resident ugly duckling; now that she’s had a transformative rhinoplasty, she’s a certifiable swan. Or, more precisely, a fox — one capable of driving men to madness, from old flame Andy (Luke Evans), Beth’s hunky hired hand, to petulant rock star Ben (Dominic Cooper), Tamara’s latest interview subject.

Naturally, Ben has other fans in the neighborhood — notably a pair of mischievous teens (Jessica Barden, Charlotte Christie) who, in their zeal to meet their musical idol, trigger all sorts of fateful plot complications.

The characters behind the plot complications have their appealing quirks. And "Tamara Drewe’s" deceptively pastoral setting — with an undercurrent of intellectual pretension, thanks to all those anxious writers — presents a potentially intriguing playing field for their myriad antics.

Yet despite the occasional, and very welcome, zinger, the movie meanders hither and yon without much focus, challenging us to maintain sympathy — and sometimes even tolerance — for its mostly wayward characters.

If the action is all over the place — and it is — the acting’s even more so, from Evans’ stalwart sweetness to Allam’s smug arrogance. Cooper (still in musical mode after "Mamma Mia!") has fun with all the rock-star cliches, and Arterton remains dependably ornamental, if not quite as exotically attired (or unattired) as she was in "Prince of Persia." As bewitching enchantresses go, however, she’s strictly playing dress-up compared to Julie Christie, who embodied Hardy’s tempestuous Bathsheba Everdene in the epic 1967 movie version of "Far From the Madding Crowd." (Portraying Bathsheba’s besotted suitors: the all-star lineup of Alan Bates, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp.)

If there’s one performer who manages to create a genuinely credible character amid "Tamara Drewe’s" arch artificiality, it’s Greig (a British TV stalwart), who fleshes out the flinty individuality that helps spur Beth Hardiment’s glacially paced emergence from her frozen existence as Nicholas’ personal doormat.

Unlike most of the characters surrounding her, she’s a real person, one with an inner life — one Thomas Hardy himself might write about.

Which is more than we can say for the rest of the walking cliches trapped in "Tamara Drewe’s" orbit.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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