Director: Roman Polanski
Screenplay: Gérard Brach, Roman Polanski, John Brownjohn
Based on a Novel by: Thomas Hardy
Starring: Nastassja Kinski, Peter Firth, Leigh Lawson
Producer: Claude Berri
Running Time: 172 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
With all the controversy over Roman Polanski’s personal life and complicated legal issues that remain, his life and work are well discussed and debated. I’ve never got too much involved though when arguments rage on comments boards about boycotting his work and the like. I’m rarely interested in the private lives of actors or directors. Obviously what Roman Polanski did to 13 year old Samantha Geimer was reprehensible, but, without wanting to sound unconcerned by such actions, I tend to be of the mind that it’s up to the legal system to deal with that and if his films are produced and available then I’ll still watch them if they interest me. I’m not the world’s biggest Polanski fan though it must be said. Although I consider Chinatown to be amongst my favourite 10 or 15 films of all time I’ve not seen a huge amount of his work and a couple of those I have seen have been less than stellar. I really didn’t see the appeal of The Fearless Vampire Killers for instance and thought the more recent Ghost Writer/The Ghost was hugely overrated.
The memory of Chinatown and Knife in the Water (as well as what I can remember of Rosemary’s Baby) still remain though and despite Tess not being one of Polanski’s more popular films, I thought I’d give it a go.
The film is a fairly straight adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles (from what I gather – I haven’t read the book). Tess (Nastassja Kinski) is a the daughter of John Durbeyfield (John Collin), a farmer who is told by a local parson that he is descended from the illustrious d’Urberville family. In a bid to cash in on this fact, John sends Tess out to the known d’Urberville’s who live near by. She meets her ‘cousin’, Alec d’Urberville (Leigh Lawson), who is besotted by her. Although she is initially reluctant, he manages to seduce Tess as she spends time with his family, forcefully ‘winning’ her over for a short while. Tess breaks free from him though and heads back for home but not before she is impregnated with his child. The baby dies after only a few weeks and, disgraced and distressed, Tess leaves home to work on a dairy farm further afield. Here she meets Angel (Peter Firth), a reverend’s son who falls madly in love with her. She quite quickly reciprocates, but the shadow of her past weighs heavy on her soul and she worries about whether Angel will accept her as she is.
I was not a fan of Roman Polanski’s Tess. Before I go and lay into the film though, I must say I’m not a fan of British-set period dramas at all. I find them stuffy, dull and ‘samey’. Too often their plots are about social hierarchies and the problems they entail, a topic that’s been done to death and never really interested me anyway. So I was never going to be gushing over Tess. I will say, there is one element that is outstanding about the film though and that is the cinematography. Making the most of some beautiful locations (with Brittany, France standing in for Dorset – us Brits weren’t going to let Polanski into our country) the film is stunningly gorgeous. With a largely sun-kissed warm glow to much of the film making way for colder hues as the story gets more bleak, I can’t deny how good the film looks despite me not enjoying it as a whole.
Unfortunately good looks are not enough to keep me interested in a film that approaches a three-hour running time. I found Tess interminably boring. I must admit, I wasn’t even giving the film my full attention during the last hour because I struggled that much to stay focussed on it. There was just no drama; not enough passion or feeling behind anything. I felt like I was staring at picture postcards, full of beautiful imagery, but not getting across any substance. The story has potentially dramatic and powerful elements that could have worked, but drawn out over such a long time with little life behind the delivery I simply lost interest quite quickly. Some surprising turns towards the end almost got me back into the film and one or two well devised scenes impressed (the blood on the ceiling was a nice touch), but I was clock watching for the most part.
The other thing that really bothered me about the film was the casting of Nastassja Kinski as Tess. Why in hell did Polanski cast a thick-accented German actress to play a Dorset-born girl when the rest of the cast are Brits? She’s a beautiful actress and has the face for such a role, she can be pretty good too, but here she struggles. Her performance is hard to take seriously as she tries to get her tongue around a West Country accent. She sticks out like a sore thumb against the rest of the cast, and the casting decision seems especially bizarre when Polanski seems so interested in period detail, spending a lot of screen time observing farming practises from the era.
My main reason for giving the film such a low rating is still how dull I found it though. I’m always dubious about films that approach or breach the three-hour mark, but more often than not I’m won over by an epic tale that enthrals me enough to accept the bum-numbing length. Here however I was getting fidgety after half-an-hour and by two and a half I was praying for the tedium to end. Period drama fans and die-hard Polanski lovers may disagree but I can’t recommend this I’m afraid, despite how beautifully shot it is and how impressive this new home-entertainment release package looks to be.
Tess is out now on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by the BFI. I watched the Blu-Ray version of the film and the picture quality was suitably stunning, retaining the natural grain and beautiful pastel-hued cinematography. Audio was strong too.
There are numerous special features on the dual format set including a 29 min documentary on the adaptation process, a 26 min piece in which the cast and crew discuss the shoot, a 20 min film with further discussions of their experiences and a 2 minute look at the award-winning costume designs. None of these (other than the costume designs) were on the Blu-Ray I was sent so I can’t comment on their quality.
I did get a copy of the booklet you get with most BFI releases though and as usual this is a rich and informative collection of writing on the film, its background and production.