Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1998)

A.E. Souzis

Call it destiny or bad luck: things don't work out for Tess.

Tess of the D'urbervilles

Director: Ian Sharp
Cast: Justine Waddell, Jason Flemyng, Oliver Milburn
MPAA rating: Not Rated
Studio: Arts & Entertainment Network
First date: 1998
US Release Date: 2003-03-25

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.