Tamara Drewe (15)

The art of Posy Simmonds does not adapt well to the screen.

Tamara Drewe (15)
dir: Stephen Frears

There's nothing inherently ignoble about classic literature being given a modern sprucing up. Forbidden Planet (The Tempest in space), Cruel Intentions (a teenage, trust-fund Dangerous Liaisons) and Clueless (Emma 90210) were affectionate interrogations of their source texts as well as vivid works in their own right. Now a makeover job has been attempted on Far From the Madding Crowd, but all you can think as you watch Tamara Drewe is: "Doesn't Thomas Hardy deserve better than this?"

Stephen Frears's broad and baggy comedy is an adaptation of an adaptation, taking off as it does from Posy Simmonds's Guardian cartoon strip, which followed the contours of Hardy's novel. In Bathsheba Everdene's stead there is the journalist Tamara (Gemma Arterton), who returns to the Dorset village of her youth following her mother's death. Saddled in her teenage years with a bookend nose and an overdeveloped sense of entitlement, she now at least has her proboscis in check.

Everyone is interested in the new-look Tamara, from the compulsively shirtless gardener Andy Cobb (Luke Evans) to the pompous novelist Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam) and Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper), elfin drummer in a rock band. Tamara gets engaged to Ben after interviewing him for the Independent on Sunday - a turn of events that will exasperate those of us who really have interviewed musicians for the Independent on Sunday and never so much as played footsie with one.

The desire directed towards Tamara by the male villagers is understandable, so it's odd that, with all those perspectives to choose from, Frears should show her snug behind in a close-up that doesn't represent any character's point of view. He might at least have shown some decorum and pretended he was examining her curves through someone else's eyes. The film is partial to these disruptive short-circuits in continuity, which tend to suggest no clear editorial voice. Another one occurs shortly after Nicholas's wife, Beth (Tamsin Greig), learns of his affair with a researcher. Beth has a thought-bubble moment in which she summons the image of her rival in love, which is strange because she has never clapped eyes on the woman.

Tamara Drewe has bigger problems than these. Much of Moira Buffini's screenplay amounts merely to moving surrogates around on a grid mapped out by Hardy. Instead of exploring the source material, as an insightful adaptation should do, there is the sensation of a script adhering to predetermined co-ordinates. At least the composer Alexandre Desplat does his best to lend the film some spontaneity. His jaunty score hints that there is magic in the air. (There is: it's called sex.)

What fresh, unencumbered moments there are in the film take place in and around the cottage where the Hardiments hold a writers' retreat. (A missing apostrophe on-screen tellingly turns that idyll into a command.) Allam has a ball playing Nicholas, whose real-life fictions (that he is a devoted husband and self-deprecating author) are as pitiful as his literary ones. The capper on his ghastliness is that he can't even be bothered to believe his own lies. When Beth confronts him about his infidelities, he explains himself away with a simile about compasses that has to be heard to be scoffed at. There's a curdled joy in his eyes at his own effrontery. Convincing his poor wife is beside the point - daring to come out with such poppycock gives him pleasure enough.

Beth is the force behind the monster; she might have been born in a pinafore, brandishing a plate of scones and wearing her brave, excuse-my-husband grimace. Such a person would normally be called long-suffering, but Greig will patently not permit such a reading. Her performance is complex and gently formidable, and it is so successful in making Beth resistant to our pity that she transforms the character into the subject of the movie.

From the early scene in which Beth savages Nicholas in front of their fawning house guests, who try to shrink into the background, it's clear that this is Greig's show. It can only be bothersome copyright reasons that stopped the film's title being switched at the eleventh hour to Beth Hardiment.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right