1980 / Best Director / Best Picture

Film #332: Tess (1980)

In almost every decade I’ve gone through there’s at least one film that’s based on a work of a classic British literature. Whether it be Dickens’ David Copperfield, Bronte’s Wuthering Heights or Thomas’ Sons and Lovers; there always seems to be a lot of love for a good adaptation. That continues this decade with Tess, Roman Polanski’s take on Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

Every time I watch an adaptation of Tess it takes me back to my college days when I studied the text and it was no different this time. Interestingly, Polanski cast German actress Nastassja Kinski in the lead role, presumably because of her looks rather than anything else. I did feel that Kinski brought a certain vulnerability to the role and you believed in all her desires and fears during the film. That being said, I struggled to take her seriously in the role due to the fact that she could never master the Wessex accent that was required of her and every now and then her natural German twang took over. Polanski’s adaptation was pretty faithful to the book, which sees Tess work for the devious Alec d’Urbeville who attempts to have his way with her at every turn. I did feel that Polanski slightly toned down the character of Alec from the book as his rape of Tess was never fully explained, but then I can understand that this would probably deter some audiences from watching the film in the first place. From there we see Tess get pregnant, meet her true love Angel and then experience heartache when he can’t live with the fact that she isn’t as innocent as he first thought. The overriding theme of the film was that all men are evil whether it be the lecherous Alec, the hypocritical Angel or Tess’ drunk of a father. I did feel that the final scenes, in which Tess murders Alec then runs away with Angel, were incredibly well-imagined and the Stonehenge finale was skilfully done. Another aspect of the book that was slightly toned down was the ending itself which just sees Tess’ arrest rather than her eventual hanging which we simply read about with the help of on-screen subtitles.

I did feel that Polanski’s adaptation of the film was a successful one as I think the film would’ve appealed to fans of the book whilst not alienating a bigger audience who may not have seen it. The film itself was a labour of love for Polanski as his late wife Sharon Tate suggested he adapt the book before her death. Tess is beautifully shot thanks to a stunning Brittany landscape, which doubles here for Hardy’s Wessex primarily due to the fact that Polanski couldn’t film in the UK for legal reasons. The film’s cinematography won an Oscar which was interestingly awarded to Geoffrey Unsworth, who died half way during filming, and Ghislain Cloquet who finished off the work he’d started. The film won a further two Oscars; one for the brilliant period costume and one for the stunning art direction. I believe both of these were deserved as everything about Tess’ scenery was incredibly stunning. Away from Kinski, all of the other actors played their characters exactly the way I’d imagined them in the books and this added to the success of the adaptation. Whilst not a great film, I’d say Tess was an incredibly stunning adaptation of a great novel that had a mass appeal to both fans of the book and audiences as a whole.


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