On Movies: Hired as title-role beauty - sight unseen

TORONTO - "Life sure comes easy for the beautiful," quips one rueful soul in Tamara Drewe, gazing at the title character - played by the unarguably beautiful Gemma Arterton - as she bobs around the English countryside, turning heads, and turning a peaceful writers' retreat into a cauldron of lust.

And here, at the Toronto Film Festival in September, Arterton and her director, Stephen Frears, were on hand to premiere their larky farce. Adapted from Posy Simmonds' British comic strip, which, in turn, was inspired by Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd, the movie follows Tamara as she returns to her Dorset village a changed young woman. Like Cyrano de Bergerac, the teenage Tamara had a rather prominent proboscis, but thanks to a cosmetic surgeon, the nose is now perfect - and, so, a married, middle-aged mystery writer (Roger Allam) and a cocky rock star (Dominic Cooper) find themselves in vigorous pursuit of the more grown-up and gorgeous girl. Tamara Drewe opens Friday at the Ritz Five and the Rave Motion Pictures Ritz Center/NJ.

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Gemma Arterton as Tamara Drewe. Director Stephen Frears had not seen her work. "That's a good thing," says the "Quantum of Solace" Bond girl. "Maybe he wouldn't have cast me. . . ."

"My wife and my casting director told me about Gemma," says Frears, the veteran director, over coffee one morning. "I said, 'Is she any good?' And they said, 'Yes.' I said, 'Then book her!' "

Which they did, even though Frears hadn't seen a frame of the 24-year-old actress' work.

"I've still never seen her in anything - except for what I've directed her in," he confesses. Which means that Frears has not seen Quantum of Solace, the Daniel Craig 007 hit in which Arterton is the good Bond girl, Strawberry Fields. Or St. Trinian's, a U.K. comedy about naughty school girls, or the few minutes she's in RocknRolla, Guy Ritchie's gangland London romp.

"I was a bit confused as to whether that's a good thing or not," says Arterton, in a separate interview, after being informed of Frears' admission. "But then I thought that's a good thing, because maybe he wouldn't have cast me if he had seen some of my previous work."

Arterton, who received strong notices for the kidnapping thriller The Disappearance of Alice Creed, says that shrugging off the "Bond girl" label has not been easy.

"It's kind of hard to escape it, actually," she says, her voice throaty and jolly. "I feel very much like I'm doing other things, but it's easy for people to make an assumption about you, and it's easy for them to label you. . . .

"I was having a conversation last night, in fact, about good work - you know, work that has integrity. Even if 85 percent of the world isn't aware of it, there's 15 percent that are, and that's what matters. As long as you keep being truthful and trying your best, it will shine through. It just takes a long time, sometimes, to be taken seriously - especially if you're a Bond girl."

Arterton, who made her London stage debut when she was 21, says that Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, two doomy items from Danish director Lars Von Trier, had been key in pointing her toward an acting career. Other favorite films: Breathless ("I lived my life when I was 16 by that film, trying to be like Jean Seberg") and Mary Poppins ("a very important film when I was little").

Next up, if all goes according to plan, is Michael Winterbottom's adaptation of Martin Amis' darkly comic murder mystery, London Fields. Arterton would be Nicola Six, the woman who foresees her own death and then goes off looking for her killer.

The actress, who had roles in both this year's sword-and-sandals sagas - Clash of the Titans and Prince of Persia - gets just a little squirmy when that quote from Tamara Drewe, "life sure comes easy for the beautiful," is brought up.

Does she think of herself as beautiful?

"I think I have quite a good self-image," she replies. "I'm positive about myself. I don't think I'm beautiful, but I'm happy with myself, which is quite an odd thing for a 24-year-old to say, because I know many people that aren't. . . . I can confidently say that I wouldn't really change anything about myself.

"But I get wary of questions like this because it can be written down and interpreted as 'she's overly confident.' . . . I find confidence such an attractive thing, but sometimes you get assaulted for being confident. . . .

"The majority of actors are insecure. It's a well-known fact. And I find that kind of strange - it's a strange profession to be in if you're not confident, you know."

Short subjects. We Bought a Zoo, based on Benjamin Mee's memoir of, yes, a guy who buys a zoo, is being readied to shoot by writer/director Cameron (Almost Famous) Crowe. Matt Damon is reportedly going to star as Mee. . . . Is Francis Ford Coppola returning to his Roger Corman roots? Twixt Now and Sunrise (a movie title with the word twixt in it?!) is a horror thriller, shooting now in Coppola's neighborhood in California's Napa Valley. The Godfather maestro has Val Kilmer, Bruce Dern, and Elle Fanning in this one. . . . George Clooney will direct and star in The Ides of March, says Variety. Ryan Gosling, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, and Evan Rachel Wood are also on the bus for the political satire, adapted from the Broadway play Farragut North, inspired by Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign.

 


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com.

Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.

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