The Victorian era was filled with novels of fallen women. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856), and, of course, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) are just a few of these romantic tragedies dealing with good women tainted, or gone bad due to sex. When Roman Polanski took up the task of bringing the latter to the big screen in 1978, it wasn’t the first time the Hardy novel had been adapted to the screen; two silent films, one in 1913, one in 1924, long lost, had been made. There were also TV versions in 1952 and 1959, but Hardy’s work was relatively untapped for the screen. Polanski would be delving into what was a controversial work even for Hardy at the time of its publication due to its subject matter. It was also at a particularly bad time for himself. He was coming off of the commercial and critical failure of his last film, 1976’a The Tenant, and more importantly, Polanski was in exile in France after fleeing the United States on statutory rape charges. Odd that Polanski would choose to tackle a story so filled with violent sexuality as his next project, and one so famous and looming over the literary landscape.
What we get with Polanski’s Tess, however, is more sensuous than sexual. The film, shot on location in Normandy and Brittany due to their resemblance to the English countryside of Hardy’s novel, and, frankly, because of Polanski’s legal quandary, offers sumptuous locales, beautiful, glowing pastoral imagery courtesy of two cinematographers. Geoffrey Unsworth, who would pass away during production, and Ghislain Cloquet shared the duties and both would share an Oscar for cinematography for the film. The score by Philippe Sarde, ironically performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, from a country Polanski could not enter for fear of extradition to the United States, is lilting and owes a debt to the pastoral symphonies of Ralph Vaughn Williams.
The story, well known as it may be, follows a young and virginal peasant girl, Tess (Natassia Kinski), whose family finds that they are in fact one of the oldest, noblest families in the county. Her family sends her off to meet with their wealthier relations and she meets her cousin, Alec d’Urberville, who seduces her and sets her life on a path of tragedy. Cast out and spurned, she eventually meets another man, Angel (Peter Firth), a parson’s son, who falls in love with her, but her unseemly past catches up to her.
Kinski’s portrayal is tender and poignant, truly the embodiment of innocence and she is one of the best reasons to watch Polanski’s film. That said, the adaptation misses the mark on the raw sexuality of Hardy’s work. While the film does its best to squeeze as much of Hardy’s story as it can into just under three hours, it never reaches the sexual fervor of the novel. The seduction/rape scene is timid, perhaps understandably so given Polanski’s position at the time. Angel’s and Tess’ romance feels juvenile, while Alec’s subsequent pursuit of Tess seems more mean spirited than sexual. The film is more focused on the sets, the lavish costumes, and the various downtrodden states that Tess finds herself in. These are hardly the things that found Hardy in hot water back in his time, but they do still make an interesting, enjoyable and beautiful film.
Criterion Collection lists this as a new 4Kdigital restoration overseen by director Roman Polanski, yet the opening credits on the disc show it to be taken from the same 2012 restoration by Pathé as released by the BFI in the UK. Perhaps Criterion did use the original Pathé master, but they have definitely tweaked it here, as the image looks a bit sharper and darker, with better contrast and slightly more nuanced shadow detail than the previous release from the BFI, taken from the Pathé restoration. The image here doesn’t look as washed out and flat, but it does still retain that somewhat soft, diffuse appearance, a result of the production no doubt. Criterion brings Tess to Blu-ray with an AVC/MPEG-4 1080p encodement framed at 2.35:1.
Criterion’s release only offers a lossy 5.1 soundtrack in DTS-HD Master Audio (48kHz/24-bit). While it does sound just slightly better than the Dolby Digital 5.1 track offered on Blu-ray by the BFI release in the UK, it still has a bit of a dull, muffled sound to it with an artificial sounding ambience. I miss the LPCM 2.0 stereo track from the UK version that offered clearer sound with good stereo imaging as well.
Here is where the Criterion Collection release really shines, offering an abundance of interesting and relevant extras in relation to the film, its production, and director Roman Polanski.
- Ciné Regards (1.33:1; 1080p/24; 00:48:49) – This 1979 episode of the French television program Ciné Regards intersperses behind-the-scenes footage from the making of Tess in the French countryside with an interview with director Roman Polanski.
- Once Upon a Time… “Tess” (1.78:1; 1080i/60; 00:52:46) – This 2006 documentary by Daniel Ablin and Serge July, about the making of Tess, features interviews with director Roman Polanski, actors Nastassja Kinski and Leigh Lawson, producer Claude Berri, costume designer Anthony Powell, and composer Philippe Sarde.
- On the Making of Tess (1.33:1; 1080i/60; 00:28:41): – These three short documentaries, directed by Laurent Bouzereau in 2004, explore the process of making Tess, from the adaptation of the novel to the film’s production to the theatrical release. They feature interviews with key members of the cast and crew, including director and co-writer Roman Polanski, actors Nastassja Kinski, and Leigh Lawson, co-writer John Brownjohn, producers Claude Berri and Timothy Burril, costume designer Anthony Powell, and set decorator Pierre Guffroy.
- From Novel to Screen
- Filming Tess
- Tess: The Experience
- The South Bank Show (1.33:1; 1080i/60; 00:50:27) – Host Melvyn Bragg interviews director Roman Polanski about Tess and his career in this 1979 episode of the British television series The South Bank Show.
- Trailer (1.66:1; 1080p/24; 00:01:51)
- Booklet: Featuring an essay by critic Colin MacCabe
The Definitive Word
Roman Polanski’s Tess is somewhat of an enigma. While it is a gorgeous film with compelling performances that capture the basics of Hardy’s story, somehow the essence of the novel is missing. The window dressing is all here and it makes for enjoyable viewing. It’s sensual, romantic, and somewhat tragic, however, the power of Hardy’s story is gone. The raw emotion and sexuality is extracted and replaced with melodrama. It’s not Polanski’s greatest effort, but it is still a good film. Criterion have also put in a good effort to extract the best from this 35-year-old film and it hasn’t looked better on home video.
Additional Screen Captures