BBC Video // 2008 // 240 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ben Saylor (Retired) // January 13th, 2009
"Why am I on the wrong side of this gate?"
Thomas Hardy's 1891 novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles has inspired several screen adaptations, including Roman Polanski's 1979 film Tess and a 1998 television production starring Justine Waddell and Jason Flemyng. Recently, PBS led off the 2009 season of its Masterpiece series with a new adaptation of Hardy's work, starring Quantum of Solace Bond girl Gemma Arterton.
When simple country man John Durbeyfield (Ian Puleston-Davies) learns that he is descended from an old aristocratic family called D'Urberville, he sends his eldest child, Tess (Gemma Arterton, RocknRolla), to a branch of the family living nearby in order to "claim kin." As it turns out, the two families are not related (the D'Urbervilles Tess visits purchased the name), but the lecherous Alec D'Urberville (Hans Matheson, The Tudors) takes an interest in Tess and hires her to work on his family's estate. Ultimately, Alec rapes Tess. Tess subsequently gives birth to a baby boy who dies within days of being born.
Tarnished by the scandal surrounding her pregnancy, Tess goes to work as a milkmaid, where she meets and falls in love with Angel Clare (Eddie Redmayne, Savage Grace), a kind parson's son. The two marry, and Tess confesses her past to her husband on their wedding night. Horrified by Tess' revelation, Angel leaves her to travel to Brazil in the hopes of establishing a farm.
With Angel gone, Tess is once again alone, and consigned to working punishing manual labor. Before long, however, Alec comes back into her life, a reunion that will prove to have dire consequences for all involved.
While I certainly consider myself an avid reader, as a high school senior back in 2001, Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles held little interest for me; I eschewed the book in favor of those written by more contemporary authors. Beyond parsing a few pages of the book after receiving this DVD, I have not revisited the text since then.
Setting aside my bias against Hardy's material, I found David Blair's epic telling of Tess to be a more enjoyable experience than I was anticipating, due in no small part to Gemma Arterton's wonderful performance in the title role. Arterton's large eyes and deep red lips project both innocence and sensuality, and the actress brings appropriate stores of anguish and torment to the role, along with ample amounts of assertiveness and defiance as well. It's a well-rounded portrayal, one that Arterton manages to sustain over the entire four hours of the program.
As the two men in her life, Hans Matheson and Eddie Redmayne both work well in their roles. Matheson, particularly, is memorable as the vile Alec D'Urberville, employing his wolfish grin to great effect. For his part, Redmayne (for once appearing in a period film and not playing some sort of assassin or conspirator) is very good as the hypocrite Angel Clare, although it's not always easy to see why Tess' milkmaid friends fall so hard for the character.
The rest of the cast are all well suited to their respective roles; standouts include Anna Massey (Frenzy) in the first episode as Lady D'Urberville, and Jodie Whittaker (Venus) as Izz Huett, one of Tess' milkmaid friends.
This screen incarnation of Tess was written by David Nicholls (When Did You Last See Your Father?), and by and large he deftly manages to not only develop character but also explore the double standards of the era, the role of fate in Tess' life and class divides, among other ideas. In terms of pacing, for the first two installments, the story moves along quite nicely for the most part. Blair's handling of the pivotal moment between Tess and Alec tries to maintain Hardy's ambiguity (at least initially) by obscuring the two in a mist; however, Tess' screams as she realizes what Alec's doing rather strongly indicate that a rape is taking place, and several of the actors and Nicholls himself state on the making-of featurette included that what happens in the miniseries is a rape. Tess' subsequent pregnancy is completely skipped (which could also have been more of editing decision); in one scene, Tess is discussing what happened between her and Alec with her mother, and shortly thereafter she's nursing baby Sorrow.
Part three is where the pacing really falters. Whereas in parts one and two events are allowed to unfold deliberately (with the exception of the pregnancy), part three feels very rushed. Tess is the kind of work where the characters have the tendency to bump into each other with the frequency of the well-to-do Manhattanites that populate Woody Allen films. Maybe this plays out better on the page, but in Tess the miniseries, the effect is nearly comical. Alec's habit of popping up in every other scene (technically not "running into" Tess because he's deliberately pursuing her) gets ridiculous. This compression makes the sequence where Angel bumps into Izz on the road and asks her to come to Brazil with him as his mistress come across as very contrived, despite being taken from the novel. The scene probably could have been cut, along with the scene depicting the suicide attempt of Retty the milkmaid (Emily Beecham).
Nicholls and Blair right the ship in part four, which devotes an appropriate amount of time to Angel and Tess' post-reconciliation period of bliss. After the three hours-plus of punishment we've watched Tess undergo, it's nice to see her character enjoy some small measure of happiness and comfort (a quantum of solace, if you will...sorry, couldn't resist).
The production values of Tess are good, if not great. The overall look of the miniseries, while not terrible, would not be mistaken for a theatrical release either. Blair's shot compositions are better when he's focusing on the beautiful English countryside; his occasional attempts to get artsy with a low angle or the like don't really work. There's also too much coverage for some scenes where simple two-shots would have been much more effective. The sets and costumes look very fine and appropriate for their characters, however. In terms of music, the score is alternately cloying and creepy.
The BBC's DVD of Tess of the D'Urbervilles is very satisfactory when it comes to video and sound. The daylight sequences highlighting the countryside, in particular, come through very bright and clear. The sound doesn't have much more to do than convey dialogue and music, but both are clear and well balanced. The program is spread over two discs, with parts one and two on disc one and parts three and four on disc two, along with a making-of featurette (bizarrely titled "Angels and Demons") that runs about a half hour. While the doc contains the to-be-expected praising of everyone involved with the production, the participants do provide some insight into their characters and the source material.
Despite some missteps with direction and script here and there, this production of Tess of the D'Urbervilles boasts a fantastic lead performance by Gemma Arterton that should please fans of Hardy's book.
Review content copyright © 2009 Ben Saylor; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 240 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated