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Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Review

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

THOMAS Hardy’s classic novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles was famously filmed in 1979 by Roman Polanski with Nastassja Kinski as Tess, Peter Firth as Angel Clare and Leigh Lawson as Alec D’Urberville. Then it was called simply Tess.

Now, BBC TV’s lavish adaptation of what is generally regarded as Hardy’s masterpiece comes to DVD with Gemma Arterton as its tragic heroine, Eddie Redmayne as the troubled Angel and Hans Matheson as the dastardly Alec.

First published in 1891, Tess of the D’Urbervilles is the story of Tess, whose fate is sealed when her father, impoverished carrier John Durbeyfield, learns that he is a descendant of the ancient D’Urberville family and misguidedly sends his beautiful and innocent young daughter to “claim kin” with a Mrs D’Urberville and her son Alec, wealthy landowners of the district.

Before very long, Tess is seduced by the wily Alec and subsequently bears a child who dies in infancy. Not long afterwards, she meets Angel, an idealistic young man from a good family, and they fall in love and marry. But Tess can’t bear the burden of guilt and confesses her past to Angel who, in spite of his own indiscretion – one that Tess has already forgiven – abandons her.

Eventually, hardship and the realisation that Angel has gone forever forces Tess back into the arms of Alec. But Angel does come back, eager to make amends, and in a fit of passion, Tess kills her tormentor. Determined to find happiness together, however briefly, Tess and Angel make their escape, only for Tess to be arrested at Stonehenge.

It is, without a doubt, a bleak story but there are moments that are reassuringly heart-warming – like a light shining in darkness. Take for example Tess’ friendship with Izz, Retty and Marian, the three young milkmaids who are already in love with Angel when Tess arrives at the Crick’s dairy – it endures, without jealousy or rancour, despite them losing the object of their desires to Tess. And there is, of course, Tess and Angel’s fleeting but intense period of happines, a fool’s paradise had they not known it would end.

Set in an age of innocence, it makes the seduction (or rape if you prefer) of Tess all the more shocking. And here it’s all credit to the BBC for not sensationalising a scene that Hardy left largely to the imagination.

In contrast, when Tess and Angel make love for the first time, it leaves rather less to the imagination, least of all the love they share. Why Hardy chose to circumvent this particular aspect of their relationship is a mystery. I can only assume that it was out of respect for Victorian ladies who might otherwise suffer the vapours.

But like Hardy, David Nicholls’ adaptation underlines the appaling double standards of the late 19th Century – days long before women’s lib, when what was good for the goose certainly wasn’t good for the gander. As for social class and its attendant snobbery, nowhere is it better defined than in holier-than-thou schoolmistress Mercy Chant (Jeany Spark), who takes condescension to new depths.

Casting, particularly of the principal characters, is inspired. Arterton, virtually unknown until bedded by Bond in Quantum of Solace, displays all the spirit and innocence of Hardy’s Tess. And she is very pretty.

Having said that, it took me a while to warm to her though, in all fairness, that probably had more to do with my pre-conceived idea of Tess than Arteton’s actual performance. Besides, when the time came for Tess and Angel to say goodbye, I was moved almost to tears.

Although more attractive than handsome, it was easy to see why Redmayne’s Angel was so appealing to women (never mind that he was the only eligible male in the vicinity); while in the hands of Matheson, Alec was suitably self-assured and devious. But did Alec really deserve his fate or was he, like Tess and Angel, a victim of the times?

A refreshingly faithful adaptation of the original, Tess Of The D’Urbervilles was filmed on location in Somerset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Dorset, the setting for Hardy’s so-called Wessex novels. Accordingly, devotees of the author certainly won’t be disappointed. It may even give rise to a whole new generation of fans.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 200mins
UK DVD Release: October 27, 2008

  1. Totally agree. Tess moved me to tears and I thought Gemma Arterton was superb. It’s good to see a Bond girl who can act for a change. And roles like this should ensure she’s never stereotyped or forgotten about like some 007 ladies. Hans Matheson was also good, but Eddie Redmayne was better. A real heart-breaker… and a bit of a fool not to have forgiven her! It may not have been happy viewing, but it fully did justice to Hardy’s text for a change. I hope the BBC continue to make programmes of this quality. It makes the licence fee worth paying for a change.

    Sarah    Oct 27    #