Tess (1979)


Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy is one of my favorite novels. It’s the story of a young peasant girl, Tess, and the event that changes the course of her life. Tess struggles to make her own way in the world, but is oppressed time and again by the Victorian society she lives in. It’s an incredibly beautiful novel that captures the beauty of one woman’s soul in the midst of terrible circumstances. It’s a hefty, dense novel that in incapable hands could easily become another boring historical period piece. But Roman Polanski is more than capable. He manages to create a film that is both faithful to the novel, but also improves upon it. Tess is an amazing feat and one of Polanski’s best.
When I first sat down to watch Tess I was very intimidated by its running time. It’s nearly three hours and I anticipated getting bored about half way through. But was I ever wrong. This film is engrossing in a way that few films are these days. Other directors (ahem, Christopher Nolan and Peter Jackson) could learn quite a bit from this film. There are no action sequences or special effects, but still this film flies by. It was so enjoyable, it felt nowhere near three hours long.

Tess is about so many things, but what stands out to me is the impact coincidences have on one person’s life and the power one event has to change everything. At the beginning of the film, Tess’s father is told that his family (the Durbeyfields) are descendants of the great d’Urberville’s. Tess’s family is very poor, but this bit of information gives her parents hope. They beg Tess to go claim kin with the d’Urbervilles and hopefully bring home some money as well. This sets the whole narrative in motion. Tess does not want to go, but her family’s extreme poverty forces her to.
Nastassja Kinski plays the role of Tess quite well, especially since it was her first English film. She seems a little reluctant on screen, probably due to the fact that she had only very recently learned to speak English just prior to shooting. But somehow this weakness actually becomes an advantage. Tess is shy, quiet, and mysterious. But when she has to be, she is very firm and willful. Kinski’s has quite a few powerful scenes, but my favorite is her conversation with the vicar after her baby has died. She is eerily calm as she describes how she herself baptized her child. Then in a flash she becomes angry when the vicar refuses to bury the baby. The pain Tess feels is undeniable and the credit goes to Kinski’s performance.

Roman Polanski on set with Leigh Lawson and Nastassja Kinski.
Roman Polanski on set with Leigh Lawson and Nastassja Kinski.

Leigh Lawson (Alec d’Urberville) and Peter Firth (Angel Clare) are good actors as well. But my praise goes mainly to Leigh Lawson. He takes a character that should be extremely unlikeable (he rapes Tess after all) and somehow makes him almost sympathetic. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an actor do that before. Alec takes advantage of Tess, yet he is charming and always there for her when she is in need. Leigh is simply amazing. He walks such a fine line so incredibly well. Peter Firth on the other hand is quite good, but I hate his character, Angel Clare. Peter plays him well, but he can’t compete with Leigh. One of my only problems with the film (and also the book) is that Tess is apparently so in love with Angel. He abandons her and mentally treats her so cruelly that to me it surpasses anything Alec did to her physically. Yet in the end Tess still loves Angel. It would have been more understandable with a more charismatic actor.

Tess (Nastassja Kinski) tries to refuse Alec.
Tess (Nastassja Kinski) tries to refuse Alec.

One of my favorite scenes in Tess is a short, but powerful one. Tess is in the garden with Alec d’Urberville (Leigh Lawson) when he offers to feed her a strawberry. “No,” Tess declares, “I would rather take is with my own hand.” But Alec insists. The scene speaks volumes about the relationship between Tess and Alec and also brilliantly foreshadows what is to come. The way the scene is framed is wonderful (the cinematography throughout the film is brilliant). And the look in Tess’s eyes seems shy, reserved, but also curious.
This film is visually a very beautiful film to watch. Between Kinski’s mesmerizingly beautiful face and the pastoral backgrounds (France masquerading as England) I could watch the film with the sound off and still be entertained. I’ve never seen a film that shows the changing of the seasons so well and without any special effects. The costumes are great as well, I particularly like Tess’s final outfit, the red dress (the woman always has to wear red :P).

The Lady in Red.
The Lady in Red.

Tess is a wonderful film, I would even go so far as to say it’s a masterpiece. But maybe I’m just a sucker for this kind of story from my favorite director. I’m lucky enough to have the Criterion edition of the DVD which I would recommend to anyone wanting to buy it. The film looks beautiful and there are plenty of interesting extras. Tess perfectly captures the novel it is based on. I don’t believe there could ever be a better adaptation than this. 9.5/10

I couldn’t find a good trailer, so here’s a scene from the film:

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