Tess Review

Hunkering down with any movie adaptation of a Thomas Hardy novel (Jude, The Claim) invariably means you're in for a long, depressing look at life. Tess stands as one of the longest and saddest of the lot -- this one offered up by Roman Polanski as one of a handful of adaptations of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, one of those famous high school assignments that you didn't get around to reading.

Tess Durbeyfield (Nastassja Kinski) is a naive English country girl sent to do good by her family. She's not two feet out of her cottage when she encounters the aristocratic Alec d'Urberville (Leigh Lawson). Legend has it the similarity in names is no coincidence -- the two families descended from the same royals centuries ago. Never mind the incest, though, here comes the lovin', and before you know it, Tess isn't just taking care of chickens at d'Urberville manor, she's pregnant to boot.

Tess leaves before her dirty secret can be discovered and births a sickly baby, which quickly dies. She then ends up in the arms of a good man, Angel Claire (Peter Firth), who quickly falls in love with her. After they're married, she confesses the dark truth of her past, and Tess doesn't get the reaction she'd hoped for: Claire is so disgusted he flees all the way to Brazil. Reduced to pulling root vegetables and threshing hay, Tess eventually winds up with Alec once again... and before long, Angel turns up on the scene, full of remorse. To describe further would be to spoil things far too much -- but by this point there's only 20 minutes left in the movie.

Polanski, as all directors, is entitled to one monstrously overlong period piece, and in Tess he acquits himself satisfactorily, though the film isn't nearly the equal of some of its counterparts, such as the more interesting and dynamic Barry Lyndon. The problem with Tess is that it is succinctly described in two short paragraphs (see above), yet it takes three hours to tell you that story. The rise and fall of Tess Durbeyfield is so drawn out that it's a miracle she doesn't die of old age.

I've never read the original book (even though I now have it... see below), but I can't imagine there's this much walking, digging, and hay threshing in the prose. Kinski isn't nearly a good enough actress, either, to carry this role all by herself. With her hollow model's eyes, she has the vapid innocence a farm girl should, but if we're supposed to care about her, it's a bad casting choice.

One can't argue with the film's three Oscars for cinematography, costumes, and art direction. As befitting any proper epic, the film's broad vistas and intimate parlor rooms are exquisitely crafted.

The DVD is inventively packaged along with a full-length, original copy of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, plus a trio of making-of extras on the disc. Cinephiles should also note that the DVD is offered in its full 2.35:1 aspect ratio for the first time on home video.

Facts and Figures

Run time: 186 mins

In Theaters: Friday 12th December 1980

Production compaines: Renn Productions, Timothy Burrill Productions, Société Française de Production (SFP)


Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 85%
Fresh: 17 Rotten: 3

IMDB: 7.3 / 10

Cast & Crew



Starring: as Tess Durbeyfield, as Angel Clare, as Alec Stokes-d'Urberville, as John Durbeyfield, Sylvia Coleridge as Mrs. d'Urberville, Richard Pearson as Vicar of Marlott, Tony Church as Parson Tringham, Brigid Erin Bates as Girl in meadow, Jeanne Biras as Girl in meadow, John Bett as Felix Clare, Tom Chadbon as Cuthbert Clare