A yawning abyss of calamity, Hardy’s late-Victorian masterwork Tess of the D’Urbervilles fairly reeks of despair. It is a doorless and empty room, a dark tunnel with no end. Abandon all hope ye who rent this DVD, because there ain’t be no happy endings in Hardy’s dreary little world.
The story is well known to most – a poor girl is repeatedly tormented by cruel fate, wicked men, exploitative parents, poverty, unwanted pregnancy, SIDS, and eventually, the legal justice system. Tess is often regarded as a cork on an unsteady sea, being bounced on the waves of the cruel and nasty ocean that was late-Victorian England. She is just as often read (somewhat apologetically, if you ask me) as a powerful figure, as one who makes decisions time and again which, although her intentions are virtuous, prove to be dreadfully wrong.
This BBC production, starring a perfectly cast Gemma Arterton in the lead role, tends toward the first interpretation. Gemma’s Tess is beautiful, sure, but she is as plain as a beautiful girl can be made to look – she appears to us as a blank slate, as though the people around her write the expressions onto her that she is to be forced to wear. She is easily manipulated, terrifically naïve, and deeply vulnerable. Indeed, she tends to respond to the complex with obvious, even blunt, gestures. She is, in other words, exactly the kind of person who would name her bastard child, the offspring of a sexual assault, Sorrow.
As with most of Hardy’s dark little narratives, we have to put up with a heck of a lot of coincidences and contrived connections, especially in the second half. But, if we allow the film a bit of space to work with some fairly dated material, the story and the heartrending conclusion still pack a weighty emotional wallop. What remains today the question foremost in my mind (as it was when I first read this novel some years back) is Why? Why tell this story? Is there a lesson here? Or is this merely a study in the Hobbesian horror of life on earth? What is Hardy trying to tell us – because if he’s trying to entertain us he’s missed the boat. There isn’t anything here beyond sturm und drang. Even Bergman at his most bleak still offered a way out. Remember the end of Winter Light?
For Hardy, however, everything must be skewered, all structures torn apart. Indeed, all of these are shown to aid in Tess’ dreadful spiral to the bottom. Religion is clearly presented as a dubious activity (the Priest refuses to give Sorrow last rites, for example, which is a major unforgiveable move no matter what the rules say about how a child is conceived) and both the legal and the economic systems are presented as cold and unfriendly. Even family is presented as a basic reflection of these two grander structures, as something you either hide behind or which exploits you for whatever you might be worth. Hardy threw Tess onto these coals and rolled her around for a couple hundred pages, and honestly I can’t quite understand to what end.
But, that’s why I adore him: the searing heat of his anguish, his irrepressible misery, his undaunted passion for the darkest, most terrifying facets of this life. I love it – there was a time when I couldn’t get enough. (Jude the Obscure remains my favourite, but Tess is a close second.) And why is that? Why does the BBC spend thousands of taxpayer dollars to produce yet another version of this horrifying novel for a vast and appreciative audience? Why, finally, are we entertained by this endless misery? Is it because we can find comfort in stories of lives that are, by design, clearly way more horrifying and terrible and depressing than even our blackest moments? Is it because we thrive on these repeated reminders that the monsters in the closet may just be real after all, and there but for the grace of luck go ye?
Featuring terrific performances from all, this faithful, sincere, and well-filmed period drama serves its source material beautifully. It is a miserable trip, but well worth taking.