A young American woman (Sydne Rome) traveling through Italy finds herself in a strange Mediterranean villa where nothing seems right. Her visit becomes an absurd, decadent, oversexed ... See full summary »
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
Considering that the cultures of nineteenth century Europe were supposedly so rigidly moralist, it is perhaps surprising that many of the great novels from that era are themselves attacks upon the rigidity. Or perhaps that is only the ones we remember, the ones that have survived as classics. After all, it is easier for a contemporary reader to imagine being stifled by or fighting against such strict order than to be comfortable and complicit in it. And these are the novels that have made the most powerful and enduring adaptations to our contemporary medium of cinema.
Surely the most outstanding thing about this adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles is its magnificent appearance. The cinematography or Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghislain Cloquet is breathtakingly beautiful, at times referencing various paintings of rural England, with some incredibly natural looking twilight scenes. The art direction and costume design is fabulous too, echoing the tones and textures of the countryside. The design follows such a tight colour scheme, beginning with a motley of off-whites, giving way to greys and browns in the latter half of the picture, and finally a deep crimson. And yet it all looks so natural and unforced.
Director Roman Polanski makes this a rich canvas for his camera. As usual his emphasis is upon confinement, often framing people so the tops of heads are cut off, making the image look short rather than wide. And yet this is a picture very much of the outdoors. Polanski shoots the interiors with briefer shots, more frequent camera moves and many close-ups, and as such the indoor spaces seem the most transient and indistinct, which really helps us get a sense of Tess's feeling of not belonging. Throughout the picture the director encourages slowness, stillness and long takes for key scenes, which brings out the best in the acting performances.
German-born Nastassja Kinski at first seems like an odd choice to play the titular Dorset lass. Her attempt at the accent is a bit wobbly at best (although still impressive considering she is not even English), but really her performance is about more than that. She has that peculiar quiet delicacy that the character requires, and just below the surface of her performance lurk all those suppressed emotions, just visible enough that we believe her final actions. The only other standout is Peter Firth. It works very well the way he appears so mature and manly in his earliest appearances, and then when his feelings towards Tess change, he becomes like a spoiled child. Above all, both performances are calm and subdued.
And subdued calmness is what really marks this movie. Voices are barely distinct. The Philip Sarde music score, containing just a hint of Elgar and Vaughn Williams, is as rich and beautiful as the imagery. It is this non-verbal eloquence that prevents Tess from becoming dull or stilted. The adaptation barely communicates directly with its audience, with no explanatory narration and overt exposition. We are left to infer much, such as the baby which suddenly appears without us even having been aware of the pregnancy. The picture has all the subtlety of a good silent movie, giving us its thoughts and feelings through the purity of its images, and as such very much removed from the word-based format of a novel. And yet Tess retains all the power and meaning as a piece of storytelling.
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