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TESS (director/writer: Roman Polanski; screenwriters: Gerard Brach/John Brownjphn/from the Thomas Hardy novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles; cinematographers: Geoffrey Unsworthy/Ghistain Cloquet; editor: Tom Priestly/Alastair McIntyre; music: Philippe Sande; cast: John Collin (John Durbeyfield), Leigh Lawson (Alec Durbeyfield), Tony Church (Parson Tringham), Nastassja Kinski (Tess), Peter Firth (Angel Clare), Richard Pearson (Vicar of Marlott), David Markham (Rev. Clare), Pascale de Boysson (Mrs. Clare), Suzanna Hamilton (Izz Huett); Runtime: 165; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Claude Berri; Janus; 1979-UK/France-in English)

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The 1891 masterpiece novel by Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, is a classic tale of social injustice. Though faithful to the novel, controversial director Roman Polanski’s (“Rosemary’s Baby”/”Chinatown”/”Bitter Moon”) lush and tasteful presentation never gets fully to Hardy’s unflinching themes of raw sexuality and his belief that an imposing landscape inhabits its citizens, as Polanski’s version remains oddly middle-brow unexciting. It shoots for a battle of sexes film and one that chastises men for abusing women, which is not exactly Hardy in spirit. Nevertheless it’s a visually pleasing period drama (filmed in France’s Brittany and Normandy instead of England’s Dorset) and a lyrically intelligent presentation. But for the fleeing middle-aged auteur from an American prison sentence, after convicted in LA in the 1970s for raping a 13-year-old girl, the rape story about an innocent 19th century peasant English girl, Tess Durbeyfield (Nastassja Kinski), by a vile older man, seems like an unlikely subject for him to be trusted with.

Tess’s derelict Wessex (Dorset) dwelling father John (John Collin) learns of the family’s descent from the once wealthy but now fallen upon hard times noble Norman ancestry, the d’Urbervilles, from the local pastor (Tony Church), and convinces Tess to meet her distant relatives in the hopes of some monetary gain through employment. The contemporary d’Urbervilles are wealthy commoners who have purchased the title, and therefore are not real relatives. The rich family’s dissolute son, Alec (Leigh Lawson), is attracted to the pretty young Tess and makes her pregnant during her employment by raping her. After the child dies at a young age upon Tess’s return to her family, she is employed at a dairy farm. Angel Clare (Peter Firth), the idealistic son of a clergyman who is learning to be a farmer, is attracted to Tess and soon they wed. On her wedding night Tess confesses her past and the groom rejects her, and the abused girl is beset from there on by tragedy.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”