In high school, on the way home from a quiz bowl tournament, one of the girls on the team was reading a copy of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Since I’m a bibliophile and always looking for something new to read, I asked her what the book was about. She described the general plot and I immediately decided I was not interested in the story. It sounded terribly dark and depressing (it is), and I just wasn’t into that stuff back in high school. Well, I just finished watching Roman Polanski’s 1979 film adaptation of the story, Tess, and I now regret my decision not to read the book, and I’ll be seeking out a copy of it as soon as I can.

Tess is the story of the titular young woman, Tess Durberfield (Nastassja Kinski). Tess’s family discovers that they are direct descendants of an old and lorded house, the D’Urbervilles, despite the fact that they, themselves, are nothing more than poor peasants. Her parents decide to offer Tess up to live with relations that are wealthy in the hopes that the money will eventually make its way down to them. Things go south for Tess when her cousin Alec (Leigh Lawson) tries to seduce and then rapes her. She becomes with child and flees. The child dies soon after birth, and Tess runs off to a new community where she meets Angel (Peter Firth), a minister’s son that steals her heart. Because Tess’s life is horrible, things go downhill when Angel discovers about her past.

This film is beautifully directed and shot. It won an Oscar for Best Cinematography in 1979, and although I probably think Woody Allen’s Manhattan deserves that award, I don’t have a problem with it winning. I’ve only seen two other Roman Polanski films, Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby, and while it isn’t the all time classic that Chinatown is, it’s definitely better than Rosemary’s Baby. For a film that was nearly three hours in length, Polanski edited it in a way that managed to maintain my attention, for the most part. Maybe some scenes could have made it on the cutting room floor, but it was still masterfully done. There were a ton of great shots in the film that really turned the images on the screen into something more artful than the plot or acting happening (not that those were deficient).

The performances from the three leads were sublime. Nastassja Kinski’s transformation from a weak and terrified girl to a strong and willful woman is just a sight to behold. She manages vulnerability, intensity, and intelligence better than many actresses can do either. She’s also a knock-out to boot. Leigh Lawson is incredibly creepy as her cousin Alec, but he plays him with the kind of sleazy charm that the role requires as well. Peter Firth (I wonder if he’s related to Colin) is also fantastic as Angel. He plays him so nicely and sweetly that his turn into a bit of a dick near the end of the film’s second act still comes as a bit of a shock.

My feelings for this film are complicated to describe. I don’t really think it’s entertaining in the slightest. It’s tragic in the way that a great Shakespeare play is. I would almost describe it as the anti-Jane Austen. It’s nearly three hours of tragic romance, proto-feminism, and an examination of the silliness of Victorian class systems. So, while I don’t think the movie is entertaining, I damn well believe that it’s true art. It’s complex and the material requires that you engage with the moral ambiguity in a serious and intelligent way. I want to read the book really bad as well as watch the film adaptation of Jude, the Obscure with Kate Winslet and Christopher Eccleston.

If you can handle three hour long high brow think pieces, this is an easy sell. If you’re a fan of feminist literature and film, once again, it’s an easy sell. I didn’t think my dad would enjoy it all, but he came in about an hour in and seemed to enjoy the film. So maybe it’s appeal is broader than I’m giving it credit for. I have a bit of an elitist and condescending tendency to think that any movie that has my brain in analytic mode the entire time isn’t going to be enjoyed by other people, but I’m sort of an asshole that way. My next movie for this blog is the original film version of Gypsy, the one with Natalie Wood one not the Bette Midler version. I really doubt it will tickle my brain as much as this movie so hopefully my brain will be able to relax.

 Final Score: A-

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