Ah, the good ol’ days. Back before there were cell phones, cloned mules, and Nike cults, people were living off the land, playing the fiddle with their extended families, and getting more than enough sleep. Nostalgia for the pastoral life motivates many television adaptations of the classics of early British literature. They’re great dramas with timeless heroes and heroines who struggle against amazing odds.
A&E’s sturdy 98 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’urbervilles, recently released on DVD, poses the question: should we be nostalgic for this life? Set in rural 1891 England, the film opens with credits in the “Ye Olde” curlicue font. The lilting, Enya-style music prepares us for an inspirational tale. In the opening scene, the camera pans over a lush countryside, filmed in soft greens and yellows, an achingly beautiful paradise that we know hardly exists in modern England, except in state parks. And 16-year-old Tess (Justine Waddell) is a dewy-faced beauty whose lips and cheeks are attractively flushed in every scene.
Call it destiny or bad luck: things don’t work out for Tess. An ambitious, well-spoken girl who dreams of becoming a teacher someday, her plans are derailed when an accident caused by her carelessness kills the family horse. Her parents, desperate for transportation, seize upon the one thing that sets them apart from their fellow peasants: their family name. Although it’s been countrified into Durbeyfield, the name is based on an ancient lineage of the French D’urbervilles. Tess’ mother, Joan (Lesley Dunlop), has located some distant relatives of the same name, and sends Tess over to seek help from them.
While this might perhaps offer a great opportunity, Tess’s bad luck continues. She is granted humble employment as a maid at the D’urbervilles’ estate, only to be aggressively pursued by her cousin Alec (Jason Flemyng). This effete villain rapes her one night in the woods, in a highly disturbing scene. While the moonlight illuminates their bodies, brief close-ups of Alec’s lustful, angry face looming over Tess’ horrified, pained one give us a sense of the violence inflicted upon her. (Both actors, throughout the film, are quite believable.) Traumatized, Tess returns home, filled with shame and self-loathing, and gives birth to a baby who dies several weeks later.
The rape foreshadows more tragedies to come. Even though the film flashes forward to two years later, with resilient Tess leaving to go work as a milkmaid in the countryside, an indelible mark remains. Her honor, the Victorian woman’s greatest bargaining chip in exchange for marriage, has been seriously damaged. Worse, she blames herself for the attack, because she had briefly flirted with Alec. Other women around her reinforce this trap: her own mother tells Tess to lie and neighbors suggest that her illegitimate child is the fault of her good looks.
Her work on the dairy farm provides the film, directed by Ian Sharp, with its few moments of comic relief, with gossiping milkmaids and shot of squirting udders—Tess’s prospects seem to brighten. When she meets the master’s son, the blond, ethereal Angel Clare (Oliver Milburn), they fall madly in love. Angel proposes to Tess, and although she worries that he will not accept her past, she agrees. Joan urges her to never reveal the truth, as she too hid a shameful past from Tess’ father. On their wedding night, Angel suddenly confesses that he has lost his own honor years before (with a married woman, in Paris) and begs for Tess’ forgiveness. Full of joy that he has also “sinned,” Tess confesses her own story. Imagine her shock when Angel decides to leave her that very evening. She humbly assents, never once questioning the hypocrisy of Angel’s decision. After all, as a peasant, she lacks the independence that money and masculinity guarantee in Victorian England.
Tess’s abandonment is reflected in the changing scenery and cinematography. She goes to the work in the coalfields, sinking deeper into poverty as the pastures of her youth are replaced by black coalmines and snorting machines. Tess’ tragedy not only delves into the politics of gender and class in Victorian England, but also portrays the disruption that occurred as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Pollution now darkens the skies, families are uprooted, and farm life, never idyllic but occasionally peaceful, is replaced by 12-hour shifts in factories. Tess is trapped in this bitter, smoky world, visible in her smudged face (but still bright lips). In some of the grimmest scenes of the film, Tess shares sparse barrack rooms with a girl who drowns her woes in drink.
The A&E adaptation faithfully chronicles Tess’ hell, but, like the earlier rape scene, cuts it mercifully short. Much of the film creates a sense of dread, waiting for yet another tragedy to hit Tess. Even with the cheery portrayal of country life and charming soundtrack, the film can’t make this bleak tale precisely pleasant. Hardy’s protagonists, unlike Charles Dickens’ indefatigable heroes, do not always win. But Tess remains courageous facing generic oppressions.