Polanski may not seem the obvious director for a fairly faithful, sensitive, pastoral Hardy story, yet the result is extraordinarily beautiful. The photography is exquisite, the casting spot-on, and Sarde's score is haunting, with a Vaughan-Williams touch. The film's two-year fight to be generally released is well known, and I am glad that Coppola's idea of cutting the May Day dance at the beginning was stopped. The plot and characters are familiar to all Hardy fans. The film, in animating the source, exposes some of its weaknesses as well as its strengths, but the balance is positive. (Spoilers, but the book came out in 1891
Nastassja Kinski is engaging as Tess, if more slender than the book suggests (where she is a more buxom 1890s type). She effectively conveys the quiet resilience behind the "large, innocent eyes" and "mobile, peony mouth", and it's easy to understand her effect on the boys. However, as in the book, it's her judgement on them which is questionable. I must declare an interest: as a litmus-test of acquaintances, "Alec or Angel?" is a good way of sorting wheat from chaff. (Spoilers ahoy!) Angel, superficially the 'good boy', is revealed as a pseudo-intellectual, egocentric hypocrite. Even his repentance, which Hardy judged temporary, precipitates the final tragedy. Alec, who claims to be 'bad' (to pull girls), is essentially generous-hearted, kind and passionate under the rakish pose: he's an immature skirt-chaser at first, but *he grows up*. Victorians might bridle at his open sexual vitality, but he is genuinely concerned for the welfare of Tess and her whole family. The problem is that Tess internalises Angel's judgement, internalises his values and blames Alec, not him, for his rejection of her.
Unfortunately, the film's omissions and alterations try to load the narrative towards romanticising the Tess/Angel pairing. The sleepwalking scene, in which he places her in a stone coffin because she is "dead" to him, for not being a virgin, is omitted. Why? It reflects his twisted values and makes her continued devotion to him all the more horrifying. Similarly, Alec's religious conversion/breakdown and deconversion are omitted. As a result, his reappearance in her life is made even more coincidental: we lose the shock of her rejection of his proposal and her telling him of their child's brief existence, and his distress that she had not told him when he could have helped. (It's important to recall, as the film shows, he did not abandon her: she left him because she realised she didn't love him.) Also, in the build-up to the final tragedy, we see Alec 'provoking' Tess by making OOC sarcastic jibes *at her* while she's sobbing. In the book, she launches into a hysterical diatribe against him, and he responds by (understandably) calling Angel "a foul name". The consequences involve a carving-knife, and this viewer shouting: "No, not him! Kill the other one
!" at the screen. The film's alterations, while not as crass as the 1924 version (which made it self-defence), come close to victim-blaming. While Tess is victimised by Angel and her own psychology, she in turn destroys a man who genuinely loves her. The romantic idyll on the run in the New Forest is charmingly done, but lacks the novel's brooding sense of the bloody crime hanging over it. Even so, the emotional struggles are well-conveyed.
Peter Firth's Angel Clare (the name implies the Bright Angel – Lucifer) is all golden curls and chilling self-righteousness, the clergyman's son whose rebelliousness is a sham. Leigh Lawson is excellent as Alec, adorably mischievous in the garden and whistling lesson scenes, determined and loyal and ultimately exasperated by Tess's perverse loyalty to the man who has abandoned her. He has wonderfully expressive dark eyes, and my hurt/comfort complex kicked in over his fate
(Never mind the strawberries, pass the bandages!) The secondary characters are brought to life superbly, especially Marian (Carolyn Pickles) and Tess's parents. Sir John's pride and bluster are both comic in effect and tragic in consequence.
In this fairly conventional dramatisation, the pagan undercurrents are muted, but the May dance at Marlott, the spontaneity and fierce passion of the moonlit liaison in the Chase, and stark climax at Stonehenge remain powerful. (I should note that to interpret the Chase scene as 'rape' is a serious misjudgement. Hardy was forced to obfuscate because of the censoring power of the subscription libraries. They are just two young people responding instinctively to "the oldest wood in England", with its "Druid mistletoe", and the drowsing animals and birds are not startled.) The film's hauntingly beautiful images remain in the mind long after viewing.