Tess (1979)

tess poster 1979 movie
8.5 Overall Score
Story: 9/10
Acting: 9/10
Visuals: 8/10

Good adaptation of a story that is different than a lot of period pieces

Roman Polanski taints his own work

Movie Info

Movie Name:  Tess

Studio:  Renn Productions/Timothy Burrill Productions/Société Française de Production (SFP)

Genre(s):  Drama

Release Date(s):  October 25, 1979 (West Germany)/December 12, 1980 (US)

MPAA Rating:  PG

tess alec stokes durberville leigh lawson nastassja kinski

You seem dangerous…I’m sure it won’t be a problem though…

Tess Durbeyfield (Nastassja Kinski) find her world in flux when her father (John Collin) finds that their family name is a corruption of the well-known d’Urbervilles.  She finds herself sent to her “cousin” Alec Stokes-d’Urberville (Leigh Lawson) only to find out that too is a mistake and that names don’t always mean something.  When her life collapses again, the arrival of Angel Clare (Peter Firth) could mean hope for Tess…but could her past and mistakes doom their relationship if he ever knew the truth about her?

Directed by Roman Polanski (who also adapted the script with Gerard Brach and John Brownjohn), Tess is a period drama.  The film is an adaptation of the 1891 Thomas Hardy novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles and released to positive reviews.  The film won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, and Best Costume Design with nominations for Best Picture and Best Director.

tess confession nastassja kinski peter firth

Ooo….confession time? I’ve got a good one, Angel!

I loved Tess of the d’Urbervilles when I read it in college.  It was like a typical period piece with a virginal innocent girl, a cad type character, and an ideal man character…and it turns all those assumptions on the side.  What you expect from the novel doesn’t happen, and the movie follows the novel rather closely.  Due to aspects of the story, a ******spoiler alert****** is in effect for the rest of the review.

The story essentially has Tess pulled down by history, mistakes, and in general, no fault of her own (except maybe the ending when she cracks).  She’s innocent and forced into trying to live up to a name and class which others around her hope will get her a fortune…and it all goes south when she’s raped and impregnated by a person she (somewhat) trusts.  The hits keep coming for the character when the “savior” character (literally named Angel) also steps all over her by accusing her of not being the person she married and wrecks her chance at happiness.  Angel then resurfaces desperate to be the savior only to have Tess kill her husband (the awful faux cousin)…it is much like a Shakespeare or Greek tragedy.  The character never stood a chance.

Nastassja Kinski is a decent Tess with her wide-eyed innocence.  She is soft spoken and her quiet nature doesn’t help stop the people steamrolling her in her life.  Peter Firth likewise is a decent Angel because he can come off as cruel as well when he turns on his wife after her confession (after confessing himself).  Leigh Lawson is a great smarmy Alec, and the cast works well together.

tess ending angel clare peter firth nastassja kinski stonehenge

Stonehenge is a nice place to visit…when you aren’t on the run

The film also looks good.  It is cold and callus like the story and it feels like there is very little warmth except the period at the dairy farm where Tess’s life seems to be going ok for a while.  Even the world of wealth and the ocean side home feels frigid.  The movie ends with some blunt dialogue on Tess’s fate after a night on the moors at Stonehenge…it takes no prisoners in the story or visuals.

The problem with the film is a bigger problem…Roman Polanski.  While it is a great film, just being associated with Polanski puts a black mark on the movie.  It is unfortunate because it is a solid film and more people should see it as an alternative to the typical period piece…unfortunately Polanski and his own problems always leave you as a viewer questioning if you can separate art from the artist.  Tess is just another victim…again.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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