Tess (1979) – Roman Polanski (BFI Release)

Roman Polanski’s period films don’t garner the same sort of critical attention that his genre films attain.  The likes of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974) no doubt feature more highly in film discussions than the likes of Oliver Twist (2005) or Tess (1979) yet the latter of these films presents an epic expanse that manages to still capture detail and beauty; a rare feat for a film on such a scale.  Tess is an adaptation of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, a story given too many adaptations that are often extremely similar.

Polanski’s roots as a genre filmmaker clearly ground him with an interest in every visual aspect that produces a period drama and pays far more attention to auteur like detail than most period feature film directors.  Instead of merely obeying period accuracies and avoiding anachronisms (the main key to many lesser quality period dramas) Tess uses Hardy’s narrative as an excuse to film a very season based film, exploring all of the potential colours and light that is produced in the countryside.

For such a well known narrative, there is little point in relating the details of Hardy’s novel.  Considering the film clocks in at just over three hours, it is safe to assume that the film is quite faithful to the original work.  Instead more focus should be given to the linking of image and metaphor; a relationship that is constantly construed to and even manages to be mirrored within the narrative itself through a consistent narrative pointer being the seasonal colours.

Tess starts off in the most idyllic of summers.  This is a most picture postcard like vision of England, heightened further by the French shooting locations that offer more naturally exaggerated weathers.  The first segment presents an almost middle-earth like vision of country life, full of Parish priests who keep bees and early evening dances in the fields as the sun sets.  Polanski’s England is one of great natural beauty and Geoffrey Unsworth’s photography is some of the best ever captured.  This is an England of Constable clouds, Vaughan Williams-esque scoring and Malick fields and sunsets.

The comparison to Malick is a fair one with Polanski taking the time to document the countryside traditions and way of life.  Many of the sunset/sunrise scenes could easily be from Days of Heaven (1978) and in some cases are on par with Malick’s vistas.  Even the houses, some of which are purpose built, look so authentically chocolate box, it’s hard to believe that this is from the same director as such dark fables as The Tenant (1976).  Perhaps, after many darker films, Polanski looked to find something new.  The film doesn’t scream of experimentalism yet, for a film made over forty years ago, it hasn’t aged a day thanks its obviously inventive technique.

The seasonal aspect has already been stated but simply suggesting that it captures a yearly cycle doesn’t do the visuals justice.  When the film changes to autumn, this isn’t a subtle hint but a whole colour palette change, literally achieved in one cut.  A lesser filmmaker would have perhaps stuck in some indicator like having the date or the month pop up but Polanski puts his trust in colour and it works wonders.  The sad passing of Unsworth while on recording does seem to have a far more dramatic effect than the crew give credit to on the extras though and this colour relationship does change unnaturally at times.

While the winter shows Tess’ darkest moments of life (the killing of Alec, her arrest), the visual palette of the images stays purely winter like until the final segment at Stone Henge.  Ghislain Cloquet no doubt had big shoes to fill though the unplanned change over between the two cinematographers is very clear to see.

While Tess manages to juxtapose the emotional journey splendidly through images, the performances are a mixture between caricature and theatre.  Peter Firth gives the strongest performance in an extremely delicate and complex role full of inner turmoil which he brings to the screen beautifully.  Natassia Kinski on the other hand is slightly more hit and miss.  Though she fits the lead well visually, her accent starts off in earnest but descends into a mixture between German, American and Yorkshire varying between scenes.  Though the overall performance is good, this slight vocal imbalance can be jarring, especially when the rest of their cast are doing their upmost to be from t’Yorkshire.

Tess manages to convey a period story that, for so long, has been to the enjoyment of Sunday evening television.  Polanski turns Hardy’s novel into a far more epic expanse than perhaps even the author could have imagined and has brought out its most startlingly artful and visually stunning elements.  The BFI print is crystal clear and a real improvement on the current release.  The colours are simply stunning and the opportunity to see it in the cinema (which is available) is one not to be missed.

The extras are also excellent with a number of relatively long documentaries, all using footage from the same interviews but sorting them into categories for ease of enjoyment.  Polanski relating the story of Sharon Tate introducing him to the novel is a highlight and also explains the dedication at the beginning of the film.  The release also comes with a large booklet of essays, though the real attraction to this release will be the stunning print of the film itself.

Adam Scovell

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