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Kristin Scott Thomas,
Wessex County, England during the Victorian era. Christian values dominate what are social mores. These mores and her interactions with two men play a large part in what happens in the young life of peasant girl, the shy, innocent, proper yet proud Tess Durbeyfield. The first of these men is Alec d'Urberville. After learning from a local historian that they are really descendants of the aristocratic d'Urberville family which has died out due to lack of male heirs, Tess' parents send her to a nearby mansion where they know some d'Urbervilles actually reside. This move is in order for the family to gain some benefit from their heritage. Upon her arrival at the mansion, Tess quickly learns that the family of Tess' "cousin" Alec are not true d'Urbervilles, but rather an opportunistic lot who bought the family name in order to improve their own standing in life. Tess is pulled between what she was sent to accomplish for her family against her general disdain for Alec, who will give her ... Written by
Director of Photography Geoffrey Unsworth died of a heart attack during the third week of shooting at the end of October 1978. Most of the film's scenes shot by him were exteriors in the first half of the movie and can be noticed by some fog and slight diffusion. Ghislain Cloquet shot the second half and the remaining of the movie with most of his scenes in interiors with no diffusion. Rumor has that among the scenes shot by Unsworth before his death were:
1) The foggy day-to-night seduction in the woods
2) The tent and the strawberries when Tess is in the D'Uberville mansion.
This has been my favourite movie since I first saw it in the late 1980s, and I have viewed it probably once a year since that time. My videotape copy was fading and failing, so I was lucky to replace it recently with the Japanese DVD version.
When you compare it to other films made in 1979, it is amazing how little it has "aged". Of course, it is an historical drama, with a "timeless" setting. And yet the cinematography is so assuredly wonderful that the movie is almost as if set in amber.
Many have commented on the score, and it is a pity that this is no longer in issue. Still, there seem to be enough people like myself who are fans of this film, perhaps there is enough of an interest?
While the A and E version was an above-average production, I think Polanski's beats it on almost any characteristic. Polanski's film is a series of tableaux, very few of which do not work well. (One that I find a little bit stupid is the scene where Tess sleeps out in the forest and the deer comes to visit her. Gimme a break!). There are many scenes which, if left in still, look like 19th century portraiture, a la Mary Cassatt or Edgar Degas. The scene where the pedlar comes across Tess at the Crescent Hand! This guy has just stepped out of another century. This is a stunningly visual movie, and perhaps the reason it is so easy to watch time and time again. The dialogue, too, full of the cadences of West Country speech (still there, but disappearing) are an evocation of a lost age. These are hinted at in the scenes showing the modernization of England (the train bringing the milk to market, the threshing machine) which is changing their lives. Tess, and her aristocratic background, are an anachronism, particularly compared with the worldly (and successful) Stokes.
I enjoy the rhythm of the movie, which is rural and slow. Time is marked in slow and languid drips, such as we see with the milk at the dairy farm, and finally with the blood at the boarding house. This is classic story-telling, replete with foreshadowing (particularly Tess' temper and pride). What I enjoyed most is the symmetry of the story-telling, which make it more myth-like, particularly the juxtaposition of the two opening and closing scenes (the dancing of the village girls at sunset, and Stonehenge--which legend has as a circle of giants dancing and frozen by Merlin--at daybreak). Other examples are Alec Durberville's "saving" Tess from a fight with her "rival" and Angel choosing Tess over her rivals on the flooded road.
As you can see, Tess is a movie that replays itself in my mind. Polanski's effort reflects on what I think is one of the greatest 19th century English novels (in my mind, rivaled only by "Middlemarch"), and is a great springboard to further consideration of art and life.
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