The Tragedy of Lineage: Tess (1979)

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A haggard, beaten down farmer walks home down a quiet country road in Wessex and greets, and is greeted by, another man on a horse. The man on the horse is Parson Tringham (Tony Church) and the grizzled farmer is John Durbyfield (John Collin). The parson jokingly calls him “Sir John” and John, who prefers “Jack,” asks him why. This simple exchange sets in motion a series of events that will eventually lead to rape, murder and the complete ruin of John’s family and the imprisonment and execution of one of his daughters. How this comes to be is the story of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a sprawling and extraordinary tale of how one man’s obsession with his family’s roots leads to the destruction of all around him and how Victorian society victimizes an intelligent, educated woman whose entire life lies at the center of the upheaval. That book was adapted to film in 1979 by Roman Polanski as Tess, and it remains one of most beautifully shot and richly detailed adaptations of any of Hardy’s works. It is also inexorably linked to the personal legacy of its director, a man making the film as a final wish to his late, murdered wife, Sharon Tate, while on the lam from the law for the rape of a thirteen-year-old girl.

The exchange at the beginning of the story that so changes everything begins with Parson Tringham informing Durbeyfield that the Durbeyfields were once a part of the noble d’Urbervilles ancestral line. The Parson looked through the records himself and as John inquires about what that means to him in terms of land and money, the Parson tells him it amounts to nothing more than an interesting tidbit of family history. The d’Urbervilles are no more but since they once were and John is related, he jokingly calls him “Sir John.” Although the Parson seems far more enlightened on the topic than Durbeyfield, the farmer cannot help but imagine that there must be some way to cash in on the newfound lineage of his family name. This leads him to discuss the matter with Mrs. Durbeyfield (Rosemary Martin) who discovers a noble family with the name d’Urberville living nearby. She suggests sending their daughter Tess (Nastassja Kinski) to pay a visit in the hopes that, somehow, their family connection will lead if not to more money, at least better standing in the community. That Tess is beautiful and educated can only aid in the matter.

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Tess meets Alec Stokes-d’Urberville (Leigh Lawson) who immediately assumes, when she says that they are related, that she means the Stokes family. The d’Urberville family name was simply a name and crest his family bought and means nothing. Of course, he doesn’t let on and quickly shifts from the Stokes name to the d’Urberville name and begins calling her “cousin.” It’s clear that his immediate interest in the young girl is her beauty and he begins to try and seduce her, including feeding her a fresh strawberry by hand.

When Tess returns home with an offer to work for the d’Urbervilles as a poultry keeper, her parents are delighted. Her mother praises Tess for charming them and securing a position even as Tess objects, knowing nothing about poultry keeping whatsoever. Finally, she relents, accepts the offer, and meets Alec’s mother, played with such humorous wiles by Sylvia Coleridge that her few minutes of screen time are one of the highlights of the entire movie. Mrs. Stokes-d’Urberville is concerned only with having Tess whistle to her chickens and it soon becomes clear that not only will nothing come from any of this, but Alec has free rein to do with, and to, Tess whatever he wants. This occurs soon enough as he takes a moment of passion in the countryside and forces himself upon Tess, impregnating her and leaving her to her own devices.

Tess’s father will not let the Parson baptize the unwanted child because admitting that a child was born out of wedlock will tarnish the family name and when the infant becomes ill, he refuses to even allow it treatment since doing so would reveal its existence. When the baby dies, Tess has to bury it herself since the church cannot give it a funeral for the reasons above. It was never christened and, indeed, never acknowledged. When Tess meets up with Angel Clare (Peter Firth) and falls in love, she keeps this from him for fear it will ruin their relationship. From there, things only get worse and the story has many more surprises to come, and many more hardships for Tess that bring us to an ending at a place few would guess that is not only transformatively beautiful in its own visual splendor but also in its final meaning to the tale, and to Tess personally.

The film was shot by Ghislain Cloquet after the initial cinematographer, Geoffrey Unsworth, died only three months into filming. It was edited by Alastair McIntyre and Tom Priestley and all four men do an exceptional job with the film. The interiors (shot mostly by Cloquet) and the exteriors (shot mostly by Unsworth) have a remarkable power to them. And the long sprawling story is edited with precision, making the film feel markedly shorter than its nearly three hour running time. Which brings us to the director, Roman Polanski.

Tess is unlike anything else he had done up to the point. Prior to Tess, people associated him primarily with his 1960s work, from Repulsion (1965) to Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and his neo-noir Chinatown (1974). But Tess was a sweeping, period piece, an adaptation of a Thomas Hardy novel that required expensive sets and costume design and months to film. It didn’t seem like a film Polanski would choose to direct but one he felt compelled to do as a final wish granted to his late wife, Sharon Tate. She is the one who gave him the book to read just before she was murdered. That he chose to finally make it at a time when he was evading sentencing for his crime of rape in the United States seems unfortunate timing at best.

The rape scene in the movie, as in the book, is not viewed head on but from a vague and ambiguous distance. It seems clear that Tess does not welcome the sex forced upon her but by, literally, shrouding the moment in fog, Polanski is making a choice to lessen the villainy of Alec. By keeping Tess in his life afterwards, and making her eventual hatred of him having less to do with the rape and more to do with how it affected her future plans, Polanski could be accused of trying make Alec a victim of his own passions rather than a sinister actor in the events of Tess’s life and, thus, as a proxy for Polanski, guilty but not as much as he should be.

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Polanski was clearly aware of the irony of making a movie for his deceased wife that contained elements that could be associated with his own life. He did so anyway and made a remarkable film that stands as one of the best of his career. But it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the man from the movie. There is so much in Tess to like that I return to its splendid visuals from time to time just to watch them unfold, or revisit Sylvia Coleridge’s chicken lady caressing the heads of her prize hens. But despite this, it will always be linked to Polanski and his crime unlike any of his other films. It’s the movie he made after it all happened and that will forever paint its history. Beyond that lies the movie itself. A movie that is a magnificent and stunning adaptation of an equally magnificent book. Divorced from all the circumstances surrounding it, Tess stands as one of the great movies of the 1970s, and one of the greatest Thomas Hardy adaptations ever.

Greg Ferrara

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3 Responses The Tragedy of Lineage: Tess (1979)
Posted By GAMER2000 : July 30, 2017 9:59 am

Saw this at the theatre in 1980, when it was released in America over a year after it’s completion. One of my favorite films and I think very underrated in retrospect. Having read Hardy, it is also an excellent example of how to adapt a large and often sprawling novel with clarity and precision.

Posted By kingrat : July 31, 2017 11:53 pm

Greg, the rape scene is not treated with any more clarity or directness in the novel, nor could it have been, given the time when it was written. Hardy outraged some of his readers by subtitling the novel “The Story of a Pure Girl.”

I haven’t seen TESS since its original release, but recall liking it very much.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 1, 2017 4:13 pm

It is just as distanced in the book, I agree. It’s strange, and I never really mention it much, but it’s my favorite Polanski movie. Strange in that most every critic or fan would list Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion, or a host of others, as their favorite and I certainly agree that they are great movies, especially Chinatown, and I don’t know that Tess is better. But I’m not talking better, I’m talking favorite, and there’s just something about it, it’s look, it’s slowly unfolding story, and its ending at Stonehenge, that really draws me in unlike any other Polanski film.

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