Saturday, February 21, 2015
Tess (1979 film)
Based on Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Tess is the story of a young peasant girl who learns that she might be connected to an aristocratic family in the hopes of inheriting some of their fortune only to endure humiliation and betrayal. Directed by Roman Polanski and screenplay by Polanski, Gerard Bach, and John Brownjohn, the film is an exploration into the world of a young woman who copes with all sorts of challenges as she tries to see if she can get a better life as the titular character is played by Nastassja Kinski. Also starring Peter Firth, Leigh Lawson, John Collin, Rosemary Martin, and Richard Pearson. Tess is a ravishing yet evocative film from Roman Polanski.
Set in the 19th Century in Britain, the film explores a young woman who learns that her family might actually be related to an aristocratic family where her attempts to get the family fortune would have in ruins as she succumbs to shame and despair despite being cared and adored by a preacher’s son. It’s a film that plays into a woman who would go through many trials and tribulations as she copes with being raped by a man who claims to be her cousin and then carry that shame with her as she tries to move on with her life. All of which plays into the name she believed that belongs to her and her family only to be ruined in many ways all because of that cursed named.
The film’s screenplay has a unique yet complex structure as it plays into Tess’ journey from innocence to ruin. The first act revolves around Tess’ meeting with the d’Urberville family that is led by Alec d’Urberville (Leigh Lawson) as she arrives to confirm rumors that her family surname might actually be d’Urberville after her father (John Collin) runs into a parson (Tony Church) who called him Sir d’Urberville setting up the chain of events. Tess is someone that comes from a simple world as she is also very strong-willed as she isn’t really interested in inheriting a fortune but rather help out her family. When Alec takes a personal interest in Tess, Tess is bewildered as the encounter ends up being one of humiliation and shame as it’s followed by tragic circumstances which would force her to leave her family.
Upon taking a job as a milkmaid for a farm, Tess would meet an idealistic preacher’s son named Angel Clare (Peter Firth) whom she had previously encountered very early in the film from afar. It is there that the film’s second act begins where Tess finds not just hope and happiness in Angel but also a life that feels much more familiar than the one before the encounter with Alec. Yet, she is haunted by her time with Alec as she wants to tell Angel her past where it would later cause many problems where the film’s third act is about Tess devolving into a state of ruin and despair as she refuses Alec’s help while being estranged from Angel who would eventually make his own return. All of which plays into exactly what Tess wants but also in how far deep she has gone into a state of unhappiness all because of the name she thought was supposed to be hers and her family.
Roman Polanski’s direction is truly intoxicating in not just the way he creates something that feels like a moment in time where things were much simpler. It’s also in how he is able to make a story about a woman’s shame and the troubles that she would go through into something that feels quite modern. Much of the film is shot on location in France through many of its different countryside locations to play as Britain during the Victorian era. Polanski’s use of soft lenses, wide shots, medium shots, and close-ups are key to the film’s first act where it feels warm and rapturous in its look as it plays to the life that Tess could have as well as a life with Angel that is very simple. Yet, there’s many constraints about what is expected for women that would play into the film’s second half where Tess is still coping with the sense of shame over her encounter with Alec.
There is a looseness to the way the camera acts for scenes shot on carriages or in the rain as it becomes much tighter in its second half. The look itself is also very bleak where it plays into Tess own state of despair. The camera isn’t as shaky in some parts while the compositions are much broader to showcase how detached Tess is with herself and the help that she needed as it sort of plays into how stubborn she is. Even as she would reluctantly meet Alec in its third act as it plays into what she needs but also in what her family needs in the wake of everything they’ve been through. The film’s ending which also involves Angel plays into not just Tess’ desire for happiness but also all of the trouble she had encounter all because of the d’Urberville name as well as the role that is expected for women in those times. Overall, Polanski creates a very mesmerizing yet harrowing film about a woman’s troubled journey over a family name that she was connected with.
Cinematographers Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghislain Cloquet do incredible work with the film‘s very gorgeous and ravishing cinematography where Unsworth‘s work is spent on much of the film‘s exterior scenes in the fields to play into its beauty as well as the scenes at the d‘Urberville estate while Cloquet goes for more low-key looks and natural settings for much of the film‘s interiors as well as the exterior scenes in the film‘s second half as the photography of Unsworth and Cloquet is a major highlight of the film. Editors Alistair McIntyre and Tom Priestley do excellent work with the editing as it is straightforward in some parts while creating some unique jump-cuts and other rhythmic cuts to play into the drama as well as some of the intense moments in the film. Production designer Pierre Guffoy and art director Jack Stephens do amazing work with the look of the d’Urberville estate and its other features as well as the look of the places that Tess and Angel would encounter including the house where they would spend their wedding night.
Costume designer Anthony Powell does brilliant work with the dresses that Tess would wear in her journey from the simple yet plain dresses early in the film to something more lavish as it progresses with elements of wear and tear to play into her despair. Sound editors Herve de Luze and Peter Horrocks do superb work with the sound to capture the sparse textures in the way the carriage sounds as well as some key moments into the machines that are emerging during those times. The film’s music by Philippe Sarde is fantastic for its lush, orchestral score that plays into the many emotions that Tess would go through in her journey as it has elements of somber strings and woodwinds to help create a sense of emotion throughout the film.
The casting of Mary Sewell is great as it features some notable small roles from Suzanna Hamilton as a milkmaid who pines for Angel, Tony Church as the parson who would inform Tess’ father of his namesake, Sylvia Coleridge as Alec’s mother, Arielle Dombasle as Sunday school teacher that Angel knew, Caroline Embling as another milkmaid Tess meets in Retty, David Markham and Pascale de Boysson as Angel’s parents, and Richard Pearson as a local vicar who tried to help out Tess following a tragic event but is constrained by his own laws. Rosemary Martin and John Collin are excellent as Tess’ parents with Martin as the more sensible mother and Collin as the father who is desperate to gain something from the family he’s related to.
Leigh Lawson is brilliant as Alec d’Urberville as a man who lives a privileged life despite not really owning up to everything he has as he tries to take control of Tess and buy her off as well as her family as he represents a symbol of capitalism and entitlement that Tess despises. Peter Firth is amazing as Angel Clare as a preacher’s son who is fascinated by Tess as he falls for her while later coping with her past as he tries to erase it only to go into his own foolish journey which would lead him back to Tess. Finally, there’s Nastassja Kinski in a remarkable performance as the titular character as a young peasant girl who would endure an incredible journey of growth and awareness about herself and the world as it’s truly intoxicating to watch as it’s a real breakthrough performance for Kinski.
Tess is an exquisitely glorious film from Roman Polanski that features a radiant performance from Nastassja Kinski. The film is definitely one of Polanski’s finest films in the way he explores morals and destinies as it relates to a young woman in the 19th Century as she is constrained by them. Armed with a great ensemble cast, gorgeous photography, sublime music, and all sorts of amazing technical work. The film is truly one of the finest and most compelling films about a woman who deals with rules and what is expected of her as she is shamed into ruin. In the end, Tess is a magnificent film from Roman Polanski.
Roman Polanski Films: Knife in the Water - Repulsion - Cul-de-Sac - The Fearless Vampire Killers - Rosemary's Baby - Macbeth (1971) - (What?) - Chinatown - The Tenant - (Pirates) - Frantic - Bitter Moon - Death and the Maiden - The Ninth Gate - The Pianist - Oliver Twist (2005 film) - The Ghost Writer - Carnage - (Venus in Fur) - (Based on a True Story) - (An Officer and a Spy) - (The Palace)
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