The Rural Heartbreak and Victorian Gender Politics of 'Tess'

by Adrian Warren

4 April 2013

In addition to being a hymn to doomed romance, Tess is an unflinching examination of the unpleasant mores of a resolutely sexist and thoroughly patriarchal Victorian society, when women were viewed at best as subservient, and at worst as male possessions, prone to the whims of the disrespectful.
cover art


Director: Roman Polanski
Cast: Nastassja Kinski, Leigh Lawson, Peter Firth

(Columbia Pictures)
UK DVD: 18 Mar 2013

When filmmakers choose to create a cinematic version of an acclaimed literary work, the process of adaptation can be a both a blessing and a curse. Assuming the original source text – in this case, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles – is beautifully constructed and dramatically satisfying, the story will, in a manner of speaking, take care of itself.

Additionally, a culturally established and revered book will already have its avid consumers and staunch admirers, which in film industry terms means a highly anticipative audience (a substratum of cinemagoer beloved by Hollywood’s money men). Still, filmmakers must take the rough with the smooth; riding on a famous author’s coattails doesn’t guarantee critical and commercial success, and potential pitfalls can arise depending on the extent to which iconic material is tampered with: fiddle too much and you’ll anger the purists; stick rigidly to the source and you’ll be accused of being non-progressive, or of failing to breathe new life into the overly familiar.

It falls upon the shoulders of a talented filmmaker to oversee this fine balancing act, and Roman Polanski, the director of Tess, does an admirable job. Graced with very strong performances and supported by some exemplary creative and technical staff, Polanski creates a vivid adaptation of Hardy’s rather depressing Victorian drama, turning in a beautifully detailed, highly atmospheric and evocative film that is fraught with the promise of impending tragedy.

The film is largely faithful to Hardy’s original novel (albeit inevitably truncated), and charts the life of Tess Durbeyfield (Nastassja Kinski), a beautiful young woman born into a life of English peasantry. When a well-meaning clergyman informs Tess’ pauper father John that he is descended from the d’Urbervilles—a now-defunct bloodline of local nobility—John attempts to regain the family’s status and wealth by forging a connection with Alec d’Urberville (Leigh Lawson), a rich local man who John incorrectly assumes is a member of the same aristocratic family (the nouveau riche d’Urberville actually has no connection at all; he merely purchased the name and the family coat of arms).

John nevertheless sends a reluctant Tess to d’Urberville’s large country house to meet him, and whilst she remains shy and virtuous, d’Urberville is totally smitten with his new ‘cousin’ and falls quickly in love. In time, Tess enters into a relationship of convenience with him, but d’Urberville rapes her and she falls pregnant. Tragically, her baby is born unhealthy and dies soon after.

Distraught, Tess eventually finds work on a dairy farm in an attempt to escape her misery and exorcise memories of her appalling treatment at the hands of d’Urberville. It is here that she meets a kind, intelligent and aspiring farmer, Angel (Peter Firth). Angel and Tess fall in love, but it’s only a matter of time before knowledge of Tess’ former relationship and secret pregnancy come to the fore. When it does, the strict codes of Victorian morality are shattered, and the subsequent havoc wrought sends Tess into an irrevocable free fall from which she’ll never recover.

What follows is a moving account of an intelligent young woman’s attempts to remain strong-minded and independent in the face of appalling mistreatment, as she is pushed-and-pulled between the affections and reproaches of her two suitors. In addition to being a hymn to doomed romance, Tess is an unflinching examination of the unpleasant mores of a resolutely sexist and thoroughly patriarchal Victorian society, when women were viewed at best as subservient, and at worst as male possessions, prone to the whims of the disrespectful.

Tess looks terrific, and the film’s extraordinary cinematography is credited to a pair of DPs (the Belgian Ghislain Cloquet and the Briton Geoffrey Unsworth), so it’s rather difficult to tell who shot what, although the fact that many of the film’s more aesthetically appealing scenes contain hints of Unsworth’s signature visual motifs – a diffused glow, fog, and lighting bloom – is indicative that of the two, he was probably the artist who left a more tangible authorial footprint upon the film. This is not to diminish Cloquet’s contribution, however (the chillier scenes in Tess do bear a striking resemblance to those in another fine Cloquet-shot production, Woody Allen’s Love and Death), because the entire film’s lighting and colour palette – from the radiance of a Hardyesque summer, to the stark and slate-grey hues of a freezing and skeletal winter landscape – looks uniformly beautiful, so due credit to them both.

Perhaps the finest example of the film’s stunning and sumptuous photography occurs during a scene on the dairy farm. In the low light of a prevailing dusk, Tess and a group of her fellow farmworkers congregate near a milking barn. Dressed in starched white uniforms and framed in the dimness of the foreground, these anaemic ghosts are juxtaposed against a beautiful effulgent glow that emanates from an open barn in the background. This resplendent moment of visual contrast is exquisite, and resembles a living painting by Johannes Vermeer. I’d go so far as to say that this scene is comprised of some of the most gorgeous images ever captured on colour film.

Other creative departments excel too, with the art and costume designer bearing a very fruitful collaboration. The seasons so beautifully visualised by Unsworth and Cloquet are also appropriated by the film’s design teams to reflect Tess’ vacillating fortunes.

When her life is on the ascendant and she begins to forge tentative romantic relationships, the Wessex summer flora that surrounds her is symbolically verdurous (one particular scene that is wonderfully unsubtle in conveying its subtextual message is set in a lovely rose garden, and features the caddish d’Urberville offering up a fat, ripe strawberry to Tess’ perfect plump lips). Additionally, to suggest virginal purity, Tess is often seen wearing simple and gorgeous white dresses during the film’s first third.

Conversely, by the time Tess’ relationships have chilled in conjunction with the harsh winter that now envelopes the rural landscape, she is dressed accordingly in basic, functional clothing, tattered and earthy in tone. Moreover, the seasonal dreariness, and the windswept environment now devoid of vibrancy and colour, reflect her current emotional state: barren, cold and full of desolation. (Even the costumes of extras and other entirely peripheral characters – who mostly sport a kind of “crumpled bumpkin” look - are fabulously bucolic and totally convincing; Anthony Powell’s Oscar for Tess was thoroughly deserved).

The performances by the three leads are excellent. Kinski is perfectly cast, painfully innocent and naïve, and oblivious to the magnetic sensuality that garners her such attention. She is also imbued with a kind of exotic feline allure, a fact not lost on the producers of Universal’s appropriately titled Cat People, who took advantage of these qualities and cast her as the lead three years after Tess was released.

Leigh Lawson is terrific as the suave, unpleasant fop who manages to retain a mask of respectability just long enough to gain Tess’ trust, and Peter Firth is just heartbreaking as the immature but well-meaning and compassionate Angel, who makes a mistake he bitterly regrets. Firth played a similar role in Jack Gold’s Aces High three years earlier, and common to both films is his unerring ability to use his face so expressively; when digesting troubling information, watch as Firth’s features manage to register a complex range of emotions, even over the course of just a few seconds.

Tess hasn’t really dated much in the 34 years since its theatrical release. The film’s tragic denouement is still disturbing, despite the fact that nothing is shown explicitly onscreen (some simple scrolling text informs us of Tess’ fate); perhaps we can draw a crumb of comfort from an ending that finally gives Tess an emotional release unfettered by the influence of the domineering men in her life, but nevertheless Kinski’s fragile performance so resonates that we can’t help but remain affected by Tess’ story long after the film has finished.

This BFI release is a dual format DVD/Blu-ray disc featuring an impressive, digitally restored picture. Extras include a documentary examining the novel-to-screen comparisons, a making of feature, a look at the film’s technical challenges, and finally a focus on Anthony Powell’s Oscar-winning costume designs. Rounding off the set are a theatrical trailer and a full-colour booklet about the film.



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