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Frears has a bit of fun with 'Tamara Drewe'

Charles Ealy
Actor Luke Evans and Stephen Frears look at a scene together on the set of 'Tamara Drewe.' Frears likens his work ethic to that of an everyman. He gets up and goes to work every day.

Sitting in an exclusive restaurant overlooking the yacht-dotted French Riviera, director Stephen Frears doesn't act like he's anything special. His new movie, "Tamara Drewe," has just screened at the Cannes Film Festival, and he's enjoying his wine and a cool breeze blowing off the water.

With a self-deprecating manner, he dismisses any notions that he's an "auteur," the word that French critics like to use to describe artistic directors.

"I was not brought up as an auteur," he says. "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.

"It's pretty simple, actually. You have a script, and you shoot what's in front of you. I'm like an old studio system guy, Howard Hawks."

Perhaps. But Frears, 69, usually does not make the kind of movies that would have ever seen the light of day in Old Hollywood.

Although he spent many years working on British television projects, he didn't make a theatrical splash in the United States until 1985's "My Beautiful Laundrette," focusing on a young gay couple trying to live a capitalist dream in Margaret Thatcher's Britain.

He followed that with 1987's "Prick Up Your Ears," starring Gary Oldman as the troubled playwright Joe Orton, and "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid," dealing with a promiscuous London couple.

Other career highlights include 1988's "Dangerous Liaisons," 1990's "The Grifters" and 2000's "High Fidelity."

With "Tamara Drewe," he's dealing with more conventional fare — the story of a young journalist (Gemma Arterton) who returns to her rural hometown with a new nose job and a lot of sex appeal. Naturally, there's an old flame (Luke Evans) who still lives there.

But matters become more complicated when Tamara gets an assignment to interview a rock star (Dominic Cooper) and ends up bringing him back home as her live-in lover.

The movie is based on the graphic novel of the same name by Posy Simmonds, who says she was inspired by Thomas Hardy's "Far from the Madding Crowd."

Although most of the story revolves around the romantic entanglements of Tamara and a neighboring writers' retreat, Frears says he doesn't think Drewe is actually about adultery or other intrigues. Instead, "self-absorption is the problem," he says.

Tamara is obsessed with herself. She has a boyfriend who's an egomaniac. And the writers at the neighboring retreat are obsessed with their own needs, rather than those of their friends and lovers.

A Greek chorus composed of two teenage girls also is obsessed with Tamara's rock-star lover. But they help put the goings-on in an amusing perspective. "The young girls tell the truth," Frears says.

All of these events come to a head when the rock star's rowdy dog goes on a rampage and causes a herd of cows to stampede.

When discussing the scene, Frears again goes into self-deprecating mode, especially after an earnest American critic at his luncheon table inquires about the scene's "strategic" staging.

"Strategic! Not at all!" he says. "I realized that you had to get the characters in a bottleneck and then you had to get the cows headed toward that bottleneck. That's about it. I figured out a way to drive them down the hill."

Frears reiterates that he isn't trying to make any important statements in "Tamara Drewe."

"I just read the script, and it made me laugh," he says. "I've been a director for 5,000 years, and I just wanted to do something fun."

cealy@statesman.com; 445-3931