Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Nastassja Kinski, Peter Firth, Leigh Lawson, Sylvia Coleridge, John Collin
Director: Roman Polanski
Audio: English Dolby Surround
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Features: Tess: From Novel to Screen, Filming Tess, Tess: the Experience, previews, complete unabridged novel
Length: 172 minutes
Release Date: September 28, 2004

"Nor art nor nature ever created a lovelier thing than you, Cousin Tess."

Film ****

Roman Polanski was one of the most influential, if highly controversial, film directors of the 1970's.  A European filmmaker of Polish descent, Polanski established his flair for psychological horror through such disturbing fare as Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976).  Polanski's standing as a gifted director was further solidified with the film noir masterpiece Chinatown (1974), whose nihilistic and fatalistic conclusion belied the tragedies in Polanski's own personal life around the time.  Polanski's final film of the 1970's, however, represented a change in direction for him - a period drama adaptation of one of the most popular works in English literature, Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the d'Urbervilles."

The novel, first published in 1891, is a poignant and bleak tale of a peasant girl's ascent to and fall from grace.  The novel has been celebrated over the years for its stark depiction of a now-vanished way of life in Victorian England.  While a faithful adaptation of the Hardy novel would be a daunting challenge by any standard, Polanski sought to eschew glamorization of the era in favor of more authentically recreating the rural world in which Tess lived.  Under Polanski's gentle yet confident direction, the tragic circumstances in the Thomas Hardy's novel, with its strong dramatic characterizations and pastoral imagery, have never been brought to life more vividly than in the 1979 adaptation, Tess.

The role of the Sussex County lass, Tess Durbeyfield, was given to a young German actress, Nastassja Kinski.  At that time, Nastassja was the beautiful if still relatively unknown daughter of Klaus Kinski, one of Germany's most brilliant (if perhaps insane) actors.  She had little film experience but possessed a certain ingenuous quality which immediately struck Polanski.  After several casting calls, Nastassja Kinski was offered the film's title role and began perfecting her character's Dorset accent through elocution studies.  Watching the film today, it is inconceivable to imagine any other actress of the time occupying the title role in Polanski's film.  Nastassja Kinski is absolutely ideal as Tess, embodying the pure, innocent beauty of the character as well as a stubborn, if na´ve, nature that would ultimately lead to her destruction.

Tess opens in the vicinity of Marlott during the May Day celebrations.  A casual comment along the lanes from a passing local parson to a strolling peasant, John Durbeyfield (John Collin), convinces Durbeyfield that he may well be a descendant of the d'Urbervilles, once the region's most affluent gentlefolk.  Yet how the mighty have fallen, and the name being corrupted to Durbeyfield, the rustic simpleton's only physical evidence of a possibly glorious ancestral pedigree is a silver spoon, a family heirloom bearing the crest of the d'Urbervilles.

The days of the d'Urbervilles may have expired, but some old customs of their ways yet remain.  Durbeyfield, sensing an opportunity to improve his blighted lot, considers his relations to a Mrs. Stoke-d'Urberville (Sylvia Coleridge) in a nearby community.  However, her wealthy family unbeknownst to Durbeyfield has merely pretended to a d'Urberville noble lineament and possesses no true relationship at all.

Nevertheless, Durbeyfield, being sire to our fair Tess and having taken it upon himself to encourage his daughter's ascension into more privileged company, sends Tess to claim kinship to this rich widow of Trantridge, by name of d'Urberville.  Tess is offered an indifferent position into the servantry but not before, by the iridescence of her aspect, capturing the fancy of Stoke-d'Urberville's son, the roguish and lecherous Alec (Leigh Lawson).  Tess's association with the ne'er-do-well Alec, who romances her glibly with sweet tidings and bewitching promises amidst the rhododendrons and laurentines of the manor, is the start of her fall from innocence and grace.  Alec's frequent outings with Tess are soon occasioned by rumors and whispers amongst the servants, and such moral dilemma and increasing discomfiture eventually suffer Tess to return home to her family.

Tess's disgrace is short-lived, for she is soon to dwell within the very environs of Kingsbere, home region to the d'Urberville ancestors.  Taken on as a milkmaid under the employ of Robert Crick of Talbothays, Tess finds the pacific contentment and peace of mind here that heretofore had eluded her.

Lodging with the jovial dairyman is young Angel Clare (Peter Firth), a parson's son from the vicarage in Emminster of Wessex.  Eschewing ordination, however, Angel has taken instead to the studies of practical farming skills, and while possessant of no definite concerns over his material future, he aspires towards an eventual homestead of his own.  Angel has actually glimpsed Tess once before in passing, engirdled by a bevy of young girls in the May Day dance that opens the film.  Smitten then as now, he secretly hopes to have Tess for wife someday.

Henceforth must Tess choose between the love of unlikely suitors.  On the one hand is the swarthy Alec, who bears a vain countenance of vague yet constant reproach and who considers himself a specimen of a superior class.  On the other hand is sweet Angel, whose unencumbered appearance, unblemished by experience, would hardly be sufficient to characterize him beyond his tentative youthfulness.  Yet, the purity of Angel's soul can be readily contemplated in the depth of his eyes and divined from the gentleness of his words.

For Tess, Angel represents that opportunity for true love and happiness, although her previous seduction by Alec has produced within her with a wary hesitance to succumb to her own conflicted feelings for the earnest Angel.  This love triangle will ultimately have grave ramifications as Tess's lot in life is gradually scourged by the ravages of time and hard tribulations.

The works of Thomas Hardy have typically acquiesced to a pessimistic outlook on life.  "Tess of the d'Urbervilles" is no exception, and Roman Polanski's adaptation Tess certainly honors the text by remaining quite faithful to the morose tone and spirit of the otherwise beautiful story.  Tess also reflects themes of disaffection and victimization that appear in many of Polanski's other films.

After its original theatrical release, Tess remained Roman Polanski's most personal film for many years.  Dedicated to the memory of his former wife Sharon Tate, who had presented him a copy of the novel prior to her death, Tess earned Polanski his second Oscar nomination for Best Director.  Despite sporadic and uneven cinematic output over the ensuing two decades since Tess, Polanski's legacy as one of cinema's last surviving master directors has not diminished, as evident with his recent, widely-acclaimed The Pianist (2004).  Polanski may have led a tormented and tortuous life, but his personal flaws cannot negate the dark brilliance that characterizes the majority of his films, including Tess.

Video **1/2

Tess is shown in an anamorphic widescreen format that preserves the original Panavision aspect ratio.  The lush Academy Award-winning cinematography, by Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghislain Cloquet, is truly beautiful to behold for the most part.  However, the transfer does suffer from time to time due to interlace artifacts, aliasing, and occasional edge enhancements.  Some scenes also show an uncomfortable degree of image wobbling.  The print itself has slight dust speckling and a mildly soft video quality but is otherwise quite acceptable.  Nevertheless, Columbia could have done a better job here.

Audio ***

Tess is presented with an English Dolby Surround audio.  It was one of the first films to offer a stereo soundtrack and sounds quite wondrously lush on this DVD.  The sound quality is perhaps a little thin in comparison to today's films but nothing that should distract from the viewing experience.

Features ***1/2

Chasten yourself with the thought of 'how are the mighty fallen.'

Tess may be purchased as a DVD alone or as a selection in Columbia's Classic DVD and Book Collection.  The latter option is preferable, as it includes a book containing the full text of the original novel in addition to the DVD itself.  Other films offered in this Columbia special edition series, all available separately, include Little Woman, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion.

The DVD generously contains over seventy minutes of solid bonus features.  However, Columbia may have served fans of the film better by placing these features on a separate disc or not including them at all (and instead employing that relinquished disc space to enhance the transfer of the film itself).  That being said, the features are still quite informative and certainly worth watching.  Although Roman Polanski does not provide any commentary track on this DVD (for the best, really, considering that Polanski's mumbling enunciation generally makes his commentaries incomprehensible), he does appear frequently in each featurette and offers plenty of candid and frank comments.

Tess: From Novel to Screen (28 min.) offers a review of English novelist Thomas Hardy's life and his home region of Dorchester and a description of the readership's reaction to the novel's original publication.  This featurette also delves into the extensive search for the right modern-day actress to portray Hardy's heroine as well as the near-perfect casting for the rest of the main characters, including the eventual choices for Alec Stoke-d'Urberville and Angel Clare.  Various crew members offer reminiscences about the breath-taking site locations and beautiful costume design of the film that so perfectly evoke the waning years of rural Victorian life.

Filming Tess (26 min.) focuses exclusively on the production itself, especially the extensive preparations required at many of the location shoots to recreate the authentic ambiance of late nineteenth-century pastoral England.  The impact of the death of beloved cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth upon the cast and crew is also discussed.  In lighter moments, the featurette presents several amusing anecdotes, including one about Polanski's infamously slow pace (one crew member even recalls how a spider actively wove a web between Nastassja Kinski and a camera during one particularly long pause in filming).

More reminiscences about the filming are related in Tess: the Experience (19 min.).  Surviving crew and cast first describe the close camaraderie on the set and the joy of working on the film, after which Polanski and Claude Berri, the film's producer, reflect upon the tremendous post-production difficulties of assembling the final cut and premiering the film.

Lastly, previews are shown for Sense and Sensibility, Remains of the Day, Little Women, and Persuasion.


Expand your literary horizons.  Read Thomas Hardy's classic "Tess of the d'Urbervilles," then experience Roman Polanski sumptuous film adaptation, Tess.  This highly-acclaimed film is among Polanski's finest achievements and is certainly one of the best period films of the 1970's.  Strongly recommended!

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