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Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Ubervilles is the tragic story of a naïve girl who allows herself to be pushed too far and the unfortunate circumstances that take place when she finally takes a stand for herself. It is a story that has been translated to the screen several times, but most famously by Roman Polanski in 1979. While he simplified the title to just Tess, the film itself is not simple at all. Rather, it is like watching a 19th century painting, as if the world of Hardy is brought to life through the talents of one of cinema's great directors.
Tess starts with Tess' father learning that his family, the Durbeyfields, might be related to an aristocratic family living nearby, the d'Ubervilles. He then decides to build a relationship with this family, but rather than try to get meet them himself, he sends his beautiful eldest daughter, Tess (Natassja Kinski) there. She meets Alec d'Ubervilles (Leigh Lawson), who reveals that his family isn't even real d'Ubervilles. In fact, his family bought the title to join the aristocracy. Nevertheless, he falls in love with Tess, who struggles to escape his charms. But she's too naïve. She thinks Alec will just move on, but he's obsessed and rapes her.
Tess manages to escape his grasp, but she is pregnant and the baby dies young. Rather than stick around with her dreary family, she believes she can start a new life elsewhere. She succeeds, but it's not going to be pretty. She winds up working at farms and eventually meets Angel Clare (Peter Firth), an idealistic young man she falls madly in love with.
The film and the story of Tess is really about so much that it seems hard to cover at once. When it comes to Tess herself, she is a naïve woman who knows little of the outside world. She is easily taken advantage of. When she finally takes control of her life, she takes it too far. The audience is rooting for her to finally realize that the men in her life of controlling her. But when she finally does, realizing that one cannot simply escape Alec and hope he doesn't follow, she goes too far.
Then there's the double grand double standard of Victorian England – men can be philanderers, but women must remain chaste until wedding day. It's perfectly fine for Alec to be obsessed with a young girl and rape her. It's fine for Angel to have a fling before marriage. But if Tess is raped and has a child out of wedlock she is shunned, even by the man she loves.
Hardy's story is just one half of Tess - the other is Polanski's direction. He heard about Hardy's novel years before making the movie, when someone suggested that his wife, Sharon Tate, should do it. Unfortunately, Tate was murdered by the Manson Family and Polanski wasn't quite interested in making the movie himself. By the late 1970s, after he fled the U.S., Polanksi decided to take on Tess with British and French producers. While it was made in France, you coulnd't tell. The movie just feels like it was photographed in Hardy's England at the time Hardy was writing. Cinematographers Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghislain Cloquet deserved every ounce of the Oscar they won.
Of course, Tess does much more than look pretty. Polanski has a gift with actors and the fact that he got this touching performance out of German actress Nastassja Kinski is a monumental achievement. She brings Tess to life as a complete character. We see that her mind is constantly working – she may be naïve, but she's not completely stupid. Then there's the contrasting performances from Peter Firth and Leigh Lawson. These men are perfect for these roles. Firth literally looks like an Angel with that blonde hair and Lawson is an angular, tall man, brimming with evil in his eyes.
The defining moment in the film is when Alec tries to win Tess during the last hour of the film. A roaring machine drowns out their dialogue, as if Polanski is trivializing the issues between the two. They are rambling on about romance (or lack thereof) and outdated social standards as the world is literally changing around them. The Victorian era is ending, but they just don't know it. Tess' life is also changing at that moment – she stands up for herself against Alec finally.
On Home Video: The Criterion Collection has started 2014 off with a bang. Tess hit Blu-ray through Criterion last week and it is gorgeous. The transfer is stunning and the bonus material is an in-depth look at the making of the movie and Hardy's novel.
Tess could just be the best film I've seen from Polanski. There's still a few I have left to see, but this has to rank among Chinatown and Repulsion. But Tess shows an incredibly literate side to the Polish director, crafting a sublime example of filmmaking.