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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
I don't know what's been keeping them but 'Tess' has been overdue for a DVD release for a very long time. At last it's here, and it looks gorgeous, although it hasn't been digitally cleaned up and there are a couple of scratches here and there. It's been worth the wait though, as this is possibly the most beautifully photographed film ever made.
Ever since the release of '2001: A Space Odyssey' I have been fascinated by the work of Stanley Kubrick and his cinematographer on that film, Geoffrey Unsworth. 'Tess' was Unsworth's last work; he died during the filming, and shared his Oscar for this with Ghislain Cloquet, who finished shooting, copying Unsworth's own style. The lighting is subtle and appears beautifully natural: just look at the first five minutes starting with village club dancers walking to the field, John Durbeyfield's fateful meeting with the parson, the arrival of Tess' future husband Angel Clare, with the late summer afternoon shading gradually into evening and darkness and all before we have even identified which girl is Tess. Oh, and that stunning moment when Tess finds her confessional letter to Angel has slipped under the carpet of his room unread, and her stunned realisation is underlined by the wheeling camera shot and the blinding flaring of the sun behind her head suddenly wiping all else off the screen for a moment. Wonderful.
Do yourself a favour and look up Geoffrey Unsworth on the internet movie database the number, quality and range of films he contributed to is astonishing. By all accounts he was a lovely man too, the featurettes underline the terrific camaraderie that existed on the shoot between all the cast and crew, and it is really moving to hear their tributes and memories of Unsworth, particularly Nastassia Kinski fighting back tears as she recalls his death.
In the film, of course, Kinski is absolutely wonderful, just perfect for the role of tragic victim Tess, the 'pure woman' of Hardy's subtitle. Despite comments to the contrary I find her accent quite a commendable attempt at Dorset, having lived and worked there myself, and my wife having been born there. Some of the other accents are generalised country yokel, but Kinski has learned a pretty authentic representation of Dorset's rolling rounded vowels.
I'm also a Hardy fan, and Tess is quite possibly my favourite novel. I remain astonished that Polanski was so successful in transferring it to the screen. The featurettes make it clear the main task of literary adaptation for the screen is cutting things out, yet when I first saw the film I couldn't think of a thing that was missing. That's impossible of course, but the choice of what to film and what to leave out is almost seamless. Perhaps the only serious omission is the passage in the book where Tess feels guilt for inadvertently causing the death of the family horse in a night-time collision with the post-cart, and it is to assuage this guilt that she agrees to visit 'cousin' Alec, which is of course her great undoing. Polanski tried to cut the film to meet the expectations of distributors (and Francis Ford Coppola!) but some idea of his reluctance comes from the disclosure that he took 3 months to cut 20 minutes. I'd love to see a director's cut with that footage restored.
Finally, the background material reveals the bone-headiness of some of those involved in film distribution. The co-producer shows the film to the buyers of the two main IK distributors, and (pre-Oscars) one of them says 'This film will only show in my cinemas over my dead body.' Doesn't that remind you of Decca turning down The Beatles?
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