Tess: flat characters and subdued approach in adapting novel to screen ensure a slow-moving trudge

Roman Polanski, “Tess” (1979)

Closely based on the original Thomas Hardy novel “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”, which serves as an indictment of Christian religious hypocrisy, male oppression of women and the British class system, Roman Polanski’s “Tess” is a slow-moving, subdued film, as diffident and almost colourless as its heroine, played by a teenage Nastassja Kinski. Kinski’s awkwardness and lack of experience in a lead role show very strongly here. Fortunately she is surrounded by capable actors like Leigh Lawson (who plays Alec) and Peter Firth (playing Angel Clare), along with a large cast playing characters representing most layers of late 19th-century rural British society and memorable landscapes that change with the seasons and mirror the fortunes of the young Tess from the time her father is told by his local parson that his Durbeyfield family is descended from noble ancestors and that the Durbeyfields may have wealthy relatives who have recently moved into the local community.

With that news, ┬áTess is compelled by her parents to seek out these rich cousins and she soon meets Alec. Alec’s family has actually bought the d’Urberville name and family crest but Tess’s innocence does not immediately pick this up. Alec becomes infatuated with Tess and ┬ámanipulates her into a situation where he is able to seduce (or rape) her. Tess becomes Alec’s mistress for a time but is unable to live with the snide talk of the servants and workers behind her back and she returns home to her family. She gives birth to Alec’s child who survives only a short time. After the baby’s death, Tess finds employment with a dairy farm. She meets Angel Clare, the educated son of a pious preacher, who falls in love with her and persuades her to marry him. After their wedding, Angel confesses his past to Tess and she forgives him; when she confesses her past, he is astounded that the pure unsullied woman of nature he had idealised┬áhas turned out to be human after all. His heart grows cold towards Tess and soon he leaves for Brazil to embark on a missionary venture, effectively abandoning his wife. Destitute, Tess returns to her family and discovers her parents are not well. Her father dies and the Durbeyfields are evicted from the family home. Alec, having found out about Tess’s baby and marriage to Angel, and hearing that she has been abandoned by him, offers succour. Tess rejects him at first but is forced by circumstances to accept his help – on the condition that she becomes his mistress again.

Eventually of course, Angel returns from Brazil, his missionary venture having failed and he having suffered greatly as well. He seeks out Tess to beg forgiveness of her but his arrival puts her in a dilemma. How she resolves her dilemma seals her fate and from then on, an untimely death awaits her.

In the novel, Tess is a spirited and passionate young woman but in Polanski’s film, Kinski’s Tess seems drained of all character: that may be an unfortunate consequence of miscasting and Kinski’s lack of experience in a lead role. Tess’s actions become rather inexplicable as a result and audiences who do not know the book may find her violence a jarring surprise. A significant theme of Hardy’s novel – Tess as a woman being the child of nature, the innocent girl who is destroyed by human society through religion, sexual oppression and industrialisation – falls by the wayside. Polanski’s film does not play up the subtle differences between Angel Clare and his parents enough to highlight Clare’s superficiality and hypocrisy: Clare is intended as an example of an enlightened and liberal thinker who is not so tolerant and liberal when he learns of Tess’s past history, while his parents, who initially appear to be interested only in hobnobbing with the rich, are actually quite forgiving of others’ foibles. For all the time he spends on screen, Firth’s Clare behaves in ways that are rather puzzling. The only really consistent character is Alec who, beneath the wealth he flaunts and his shaky morality, actually cares for Tess’s well-being.

Significantly, Alec is associated with the arrival of industrialisation that was to transform rural agriculture and the lives of peasants dramatically, and not always for the better. Industry removes humans from nature: the milk produced by the dairy farm where Tess works must be adulterated with water because townsfolk are unable to stomach it. Alec lives and moves in a world where nature is shaped to obey humans utterly and he expects Tess, the woman of nature, to acknowledge him as her master as well. Thus, the symbolism of Tess’s murder of Alec (spoiler alert) is tremendous: nature asserts its power over humans, humans react to that power by crushing it and taming it. Tess’s action cannot go unpunished by society (else the chaos that the society fears is unleashed) and that punishment is death.

While the cinematography is beautiful and immerses the viewer in the life of late 1880s rural Britain, and the changing seasons and their moods, it cannot save the film from being something of a trudge through the plight of a young woman trapped by her circumstances, the double standards of the society in which she lives and her own innocence and impulsive behaviour. The flat characters and Polanski’s subdued and technical approach in adapting Hardy’s novel to the screen are the problem.