Tess (1979)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Melodrama, Period Film, Romantic Drama  |   Run Time - 175 min.  |   Countries - France , United Kingdom   |   MPAA Rating - PG
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Review by Derek Armstrong

Tess is Roman Polanski's sparse, straightforward, unsentimental adaptation of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy's classic novel of a woman whose compromised chastity triggers her tragic downfall. Clocking in at 170 minutes, Tess takes a leisurely approach to advancing the narrative, but remains distant, preferring a remote look at the bleakness of Victorian England to the gussied-up flair featured in other costume dramas. Cinematographers Ghislain Cloquet and Geoffrey Unsworth, who won Oscars for their work, put an appropriately gray Victorian England up onscreen, its sunless atmosphere in line with the themes of the novel. The quiet, contemplative nature of the film is echoed, although not so skillfully, in the lead performance of Natassja Kinski. Seemingly cast more for her soulful eyes (and Polanski's budding relationship with her) than her acting, Kinski gives a tentative, one-note performance that is nearly inaudible. Still, it served to deliver her a variety of other projects and bring her limited stardom. Peter Firth's turn as Angel Clare, whose spurning of Tess is almost crueler than her misuse at the hands of her sham cousin (Leigh Lawson), is typical of Polanski's (and Hardy's) skepticism about the possibility of true romantic heroism. The film clearly portrays why a woman's faith in God would waver when faced with a world that refuses to distinguish the victim from the victimizer. In an interesting side note, Polanski dedicated Tess to his real-life tragic heroine, his murdered wife, Sharon Tate.