Tess (1979)
Directed by Roman Polanski

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * ½

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In Nineteenth Century England, John Durbeyfield (John Collin), an impoverish peasant, learns that he is actually a d'Urberville and that his ancestors were Norman aristocrats. He knows of a wealthy family of that name living nearby and sends his young daughter, Tess (Nastassja Kinski), to make their acquaintance. She so meets the lecherous but suave Alec d'Urberville (Leigh Lawson), who at once sets out to seduce her. She, though fearful of his intentions, accepts the offer of a job from him, and, while working with his other employees, learns that his family purchased their name and are not related to her. Later, having found herself pregnant with Alec's child, Tess returns to her village to give birth, but her child dies while still an infant. Tess leaves again and finds employment at a dairy, where she meets Angel Clare (Peter Firth), the son of a minister, who falls in love with her. The two marry, but Angel abandons his new bride when she confesses her past indiscretions. Tess subsequently attempts to survive as an agricultural laborer, until Alec chances upon her and seeks to win her back.

Tess, Roman Polanski's adaptation of Thomas Hardy's novel, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, is not always a completely satisfying film, but it is often touching and invariably beautiful to look at.

The story the director tells is, frankly, overwrought and manipulative. While I have not read the book, it is possible that Hardy was able to bring together the details of his narrative in a satisfying way. Sadly, as they are presented by Polanski, they become so gratuitously pathetic that they begin, after a time, to seem like parodies of tragic occurrences and so become vaguely comic. I am sure that such an effect was not the director's intention, but his endless depictions of Tess's misfortunes are just entirely too extreme. Every disaster that could befall the girl does. She walks from one catastrophe to the next in a way few fictional characters do outside of children's cartoons.

That said, before the repetitiousness of the protagonist's sufferings veers into the ludicrous, the movie is actually touching. The viewer is likely to feel for the quiet, hapless young woman whose ignorance and inability to defend herself allow Alec to seduce her with ease. He is sure to worry for her future when he sees how she has fallen in love with Angel but is terrified by the prospect that this man will reject her if he knows of her past, and he will probably commiserate with her when he witnesses her anguish over losing her child. It really is a shame that these disasters are just heaped on top of one another until they begin to look sillier than they do sorrowful.

Regrettably, Polanski's depiction of his heroine does not help to bring out her emotional reactions to the events of her life, and this, surely, contributes to their ultimate flatness. The viewer is never really allowed to look into Tess's heart. She has a lovely, melancholy face, but what is behind it remains hidden. Oddly, as unapproachable as the character is, I cannot say that Nastassja Kinski is not competent in the role. Like nearly every other performer in the film, she acquits herself well. It is Polanski who fails here to bring out the wealth of emotions he could have exposed.

Whatever its faults, I cannot begin to say how lovely Tess is visually. It is among the most beautifully filmed movies I have never had the pleasure to encounter. The costumes and sets are evocative of a bygone age; each shot is perfectly framed and staged, and the whole of the work is awash in various bright and dolorous colors. There is not a sequence in the film that does not look as though it were lifted from the canvass of some master.

Tess is by no means a great movie. It does eventually get a little tiresome, but it has a number of appealing qualities that are sure to retain the viewer's interest throughout its duration.

Review by Keith Allen

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