Tess Durbeyfield, a young and innocent farm girl, attempts to rise above her meager station by becoming a servant to a distant relation, when she arrives, circumstances much beyond her control drastically change her life.
If I’m honest with myself, I’m probably a bigger bibliophile than I am a cinephile, but in today’s primarily post-literate society, my love of books seldom makes its way into conversation. None of my friends seem to really, truly take joy in finding a clever turn of phrase or stumbling across a hundred year old poem that resonates with their soul; to them, it seems more a chore than a pastime and joy. That’s all right. There are plenty of ways to live your life, but I find it sad that fewer people out there that will experience the pleasure of reading Thomas Hardy for the first time. If you enjoy reading, even in the slightest, I absolutely urge you to try to read this book before seeing the film. Hardy’s prose is simple, elegant, and dreamlike, and the story is sweeping, sad, and beautiful.
I know not many of you will heed that suggestion, but that’s fine. If I convince one person to pick up Tess of the d’Urbervilles, I’ll have felt like I did some good writing this review. To those who wont read the book, but will watch the movie, know that this is a fairly faithful adaption (with only one major omissions that I noted upon my first watch), and Polanski captures the essence and trancelike nature of Hardy’s 1870’s Wessex. This film is gorgeous, and it’s probably the best adaption of the novel we could ever hope for.
“Beauty lay not in the thing, but in what the thing symbolized.”
Tess Durbeyfield (Nastassja Kinski, “Paris, Texas”) is a pretty young peasant girl living in Wessex. She works as a farm girl for the local farmers, but when her father learns that the Durbeyfields are descendants of the noble lineage of the d’Urbervilles, he sends Tess to visit a distant relative to claim kin, and hopefully, eventually, to find Tess a suitable husband that could take care of her so she wouldn’t have to spend her days toiling about the farm. What follows is a series of misfortunate events that pits Tess between two men, the rich but selfish Alec d’Urberville (Leigh Lawson, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”), and the gentle and kind Angel Clare (Peter Firth, “The Hunt for Red October”).
So, really, I suppose I can’t get into the specifics of this movie without really discussing one major spoiler that happens about an hour into this film. Spoilers will come in the following paragraph. When Thomas Hardy wrote this book in 1891, he did so to challenge the norms of sexual morality in England. This story is all about sex, or rather, men and women’s view of their partners in lieu of their sexual history. Tess, when we first meet her, is innocent; a maid, and desired after by many in the town. That changes when Tess meets Alec. Alec rapes Tess (he offers to give her a ride home, then he drives her around in the fog until she practically falls asleep, and then he makes an unwanted advance, which she eventually adheres to), and Tess becomes pregnant. Her child dies, and Tess continues her life, eventually falling in love with Angel Clare. Angel and she are quite happy, and they marry, but when Tess tells Angel of her past, he is downhearted, and leaves her to go to Brazil, and Tess is left to suffer for the sins that had been committed against her. There’s more to the story, but that gives us enough to work with as far as what point I’m trying to make: this is a story about loss of innocence, but also challenging the viewer’s moral viewpoints. Is it right that Tess should be made to suffer for what happened to her? Or would it be the more Christian thing to forgive Tess and let her carry on her life? It’s a question of who is being punished and for what, and if their sentence is balanced with the crimes that they have committed.
Polanski captures the essence of these questions perfectly, but he also brings it to fresher light. The sexual morals of today’s society (and even those of 1979) are vastly different than Hardy’s England in 1891, of course, but the lessons that can be gleaned from this story don’t end with sexuality. Polanski’s lens allows us to see this not just as a criticism of times past, but also as a beautifully tragic depiction of a woman that the world has horribly wronged. This film was dedicated to his wife, the late Sharon Tate (“The Fearless Vampire Killers”), whom was, in a way, a Tess of the 1960s. I can’t speak to Tate’s personality or her morals, but I can tell you that no one on Earth deserved to go what she went through the night of August 8th, 1969. Tate, eight and a half months pregnant with Polanski’s child, was stabbed sixteen times and killed along with four others at 10050 Cielo Drive. This is, of course, the notorious incident that has become known as the Manson murders. Tess and Sharon were similar in their innocence and tragic endings, but it’s evident to me why Polanski wanted to dedicate a film like this to his wife: he saw his wife’s story as a tragic loss, one that mirrors Tess’s life.
Another thing I really loved about this film was its attention to detail. Hardy’s prose is often rich with details, and Polanski seems more than happy to provide those details. There’s a scene not far into the book, and not more than fifteen minutes into the film, when Tess walks into her home and watches her mother rock a baby in an uneven cradle. The moment passes quickly, and to the casual observer, I can imagine that would be just a passing detail. For me however, my mind immediately snapped back to Hardy’s prose, which, in that scene, read:
Mrs Durbeyfield was balanced on one foot beside the tub, the other being engaged in the aforesaid business of rocking her youngest child. The cradle-rockers had done hard duty for so many years, under the weight of so many children, on that flagstone floor, that they were worn nearly at, in consequence of which a huge jerk ac- companied each swing of the cot, flinging the baby from side to side like a weaver’s shuttle, as Mrs Durbeyfield, excited by her song, trod the rocker with all the spring that was le in her after a long day’s seething in the suds.
Nick-knock, nick-knock, went the cradle; the candle-flame stretched itself tall, and began jigging up and down; the water dribbled from the matron’s elbows, and the song galloped on to the end of the verse, Mrs Durbeyfield regarding her daughter the while.
I was somewhat baffled, as one can imagine, that Polanski would put that amount of attention into his settings and scenes. As the film rolled on, I became impressed with how closely the film followed the book. This is truly one of the better adaptions seen, and if you’re a fan of literature, it’s worth viewing for that reason alone. As far as the technical aspects of this film go, it’s absolutely gorgeous to behold, and the world that Polanski creates feels rich with life and heartbreak.
While I personally loved this film, I feel like it might have a more niche audience than a lot of Polanski’s other films. This movie is slower, but it makes use of its runtime. It’s a long and beautiful dreamlike journey towards tragedy, and its one that I think people who enjoy period pieces, romantic dramas, and literature would absolutely enjoy. For those who think “The Tenant”, “Rosemary’s Baby”, or even “Chinatown” when they think Polanski, know that this film is not at all like those films, but it is arguably just as good.
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