British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access


2013. GB. DVD/Blu-ray. BFI. 172 minutes (+ extras). Certificate 12. RRP £19.99

jane_thomas_v_medAbout the reviewer: Dr Jane Thomas is Reader in Victorian and Early Twentieth-Century Literature in the English Department at the University of Hull. Her books on Thomas Hardy include: Thomas Hardy and Desire: Conceptions of the Self (2013) and Thomas Hardy, Femininity and Dissent: Reassessing the ‘Minor’ Novels (1999). She is also the editor of: The Well-Beloved with The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved (Wordsworth, 2000); A Changed Man and Other Stories (Sutton Publishing, 1997); Life’s Little Ironies (Sutton Publishing, 1997) and The Bloomsbury Guide to Victorian Literature from 1830-1900 (Bloomsbury, 1994).

This digitally restored re-release of Polanski’s Tess comes over three decades after his original adaptation of Hardy’s classic novel and just a few months short of the director’s 80th birthday. As Philip Horne tells us in the lavishly illustrated booklet that accompanies it, apart from two American silent film versions of the novel made in 1913 and 1924 (neither of which survive) Hardy’s Tess was ‘virgin territory’ when Polanski undertook the movie.

Horne’s pun is apt. This tragic story of the sexual ruin of a sixteen-year old rural girl by the meretricious ‘aristocrat’ Alec d’Urberville, whom she subsequently stabs to death in a smart seaside boarding house, had a poignancy for Polanski. The movie’s opening credits carry a dedication to his wife the actress Sharon Tate, brutally murdered while pregnant in August 1969 in Los Angeles by followers of Charles Manson. Just before leaving she had left him a copy of the novel with the suggestion that it would make a good movie with her in the starring role.  Almost a decade later Polanski was convicted of the statutory rape of a drunk and drugged thirteen year old girl. In her recent book The Girl, Samantha Geimer (the ‘girl’ in question) says of her ordeal: ‘I did something wrong, I was stupid… To pose topless, and to drink and to take the [sleeping] pill.’ Seeking to excuse neither herself nor her attacker, Geimer does however get at what Victoria Coren deems ‘the complication that we need’ in thinking about such issues.

It was just such a ‘complication’ that Hardy sought to address in his controversial novel of 1891, which has left critics still arguing over whether Tess was complicit in her own downfall and whether she could justifiably be called ‘a pure’ woman after allowing her husband Angel Clare to persist in his conviction that he was marrying a ‘fresh and virginal daughter of Nature’, returning to live as Alec’s mistress after Clare’s desertion and finally murdering her lover on Clare’s chastened return.

Does Polanski’s Tess violate Hardy’s novel or does he manage to communicate its complex, moving tragedy? Should we welcome this digitally remastered re-release that was premiered in Britain on 9 April 1981 and has been unavailable here for several years? Polanski fans and fans of Hardy must, with some reservations, say ‘Yes’. The romantic, summer scenes are beautifully and convincingly filmed in Normandy and Brittany (though the club-walking, which famously takes place in May in the novel, looks decidedly Autumnal here); and despite an occasional heavy-handedness (notably the repeated refrain from ‘Bye Baby Bunting’ to point up the poignancy of Tess’s situation) the use of country melodies works well as a musical subtext.

… Polanski’s occasional and slight liberties serve only to enhance its visual power

The greatest strength of Tess lies in Polanski’s sympathetic attention to the sheer visuality of the original: Hardy’s descriptive passages and his use of symbolism and pictorialism. Pathetic fallacy intensifies the emotional power of baby Sorrow’s death; the luscious fertility of Talbothays Dairy is communicated in rows of cheeses resembling upside down cows’ udders; the besotted milkmaids kiss Angel’s shadow, their faces barred by the cross of the window frame; the blood on Tess’s underskirt following her stabbing of Alec suggests a new loss of innocence, and her magnificent crimson walking dress marks her out as a passionate woman and a murderess. The haymaking scenes resemble paintings by Millais, Pissaro and Bastien le Page and the close up of Tess’s walking boots suggests Van Gough’s ‘A Pair of Shoes’ (1886) while simultaneously parodying Cinderella.

The chief reservation must lie with Polanski’s casting of Nastassia Kinski in the title role. Arrestingly beautiful (with the right ‘pouted-up deep red mouth; though less ‘bouncing’ than the originaI’) and the right age, her accent and delivery are as convincing as the plywood Stonehenge. But Tess is surprisingly faithful to the original and a real homage to Hardy whom David Lodge famously defined as ‘cinematic novelist’ and Polanski’s occasional and slight liberties serve only to enhance its visual power.

Dr Jane Thomas

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