Poor Tess Durbeyfield. Sweet, obedient, and intent on following the rules, she doesn’t get many breaks in life. In this 4-hour Masterpiece Classic film adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel, Gemma Arterton plays the heartbreakingly beautiful Tess with innocence, grace, and an innate dignity that prevents her character from becoming a pathetic caricature.
The film opens with the parson informing Tess’s drunken father that he believes the family is descended from the aristocratic D’Urbervilles family. Life is never the same for the Durbeyfields again, for the knowledge that they might be descended from one of the finest families in the land goes to the parents’ heads.We then meet 17-year-old Tess at a May Day Dance. She is on the threshold of life and we discover that her desire is to lift herself out of the working class life by becoming a teacher. She briefly meets a lad named Angel Clare (Eddy Redmayne) during that dance and their first sight of each other is electrifying.
As the family’s oldest child, Tess must take on more responsibilities than her younger siblings. When her father is too drunk to move the bee hives, Tess is appointed to drive the wagon in the dead of night, where she is involved in an accident and loses her father’s horse, his main means of employment as a pedler. She is sent to her D’Urbervilles relatives at Tantridge to claim kin and solicit them for support and money for a new horse.
Instead of meeting Mrs. D’Urbervilles she meets her son Alec, played by the darkly handsome Hans Matheson. He is instantly drawn to the innocent girl and bent on winning her over. With the promise of taking care of her family he offers her a job on the D’urbervilles estate. Unbeknownst to Tess, Alec is really a Stokes. His family has purchased the ancient D’Urbervilles name in order to disassociate themselves from trade, where the family fortune originated.
Alec is a diabolical character who toys with Tess and plays on her naivete and inner goodness. Born bad, as he describes himself, he wants her and – lets admit it – stalks her. Hans Matheson’s Alec is attractive and repulsive at the same time, traits that his sharp facial features reflect. A typical seducer, he takes advantage of Tess’s total dependence on his family’s largesse. His marked attentions to Tess make the other workers jealous, effectively isolating her from a support group. As Tess, Gemma shows just the right amount of resistance and attraction to this suave but oily man, who will not leave her alone. As with many women who have little power and few choices in life, these controlling men tend to get away with their actions, which are not taken seriously until it is too late.
Thomas Hardy does not make it clear in his novel if Tess is seduced against her will or raped, but this film version strongly hints at rape in a nightmarish scene that ends with Tess crying on the forest floor, her bodice ripped open. Tess spurns Alec. She might have lost her virginity, but her honor remains intact. She returns home and gives birth to a bastard child whom she names Sorrow. Her father, angry that Tess has brought shame to the family name, refuses to have the child baptised. The child (a boy) dies, and when the pastor does not give Tess permission to bury her baby in consecrated ground she leaves the village.
By this time the viewer has been reeling with Tess from one awful event to the other, wondering if luck will ever brighten her life. Her only supportive family member is her sister, Liza-Lu, who is too young to do more than lend a sympathetic ear. Even Tess’s mother gives her little support. The scene in which Gemma/Tess cries out to her mother, asking her “Why did you not warn me?” is unforgettably sad, though it is not in the novel. I had watched Gemma only as Lizzy Bennet in Lost in Austen and had no idea how affecting her performance could be. The weight of this film production rests on her shoulders and she carries her burden well.
Thomas Hardy examine the plight for rural women during the nineteenth century when rigid moral judgments superseded compassion. While a fallen woman was judged harshly and castigated, a man would get away with a mere slap on the wrist for immoral behavior.
After Tess leaves her home village, she finds a position as a milkmaid at the Talbothays dairy farm and for the first time is among friends. This relief from constant and oppressive bad luck is a welcome one and prevents the production from completely descending into a tearjerking melodrama. Thomas Hardy wrote serialized novels, which meant that each installment offered a cliffhanger ending in order to lure the reader into purchasing the next serialized chapter and Tess of the D’Urbervilles has a tendency to tug too hard at one’s heartstrings for sympathy.
During Tess’s lyrical interlude she re-meets Angel Clare and falls in love with the young, handsome clergyman’s son. He falls for her in turn. Tess blossoms in this new environment, but her secret haunts her and she knows she must never marry.
Meanwhile, Angel, the son of a gentleman, returns home to his parents to make a case for marrying Tess, a working class girl. During their discussion the viewer learns that purity, above all, is the quality that Angel and his parents seek in his bride, casting a foreboding of doom over Angel’s and Tess’s chance at happiness. Tess and the viewer know that she can never live up to his expectation. And so the story turns once again, with Tess realizing just hours before her wedding that Angel never read her letter in which she confesses that she had born Alec D’Urberville’s child. She will wed him with her secret intact.
Eddie Redmayne’s Angel is a perfect foil to Alec, and he carries the part off well. I prefer his Angel to Peter Firth’s depiction of him in Roman Polanski’s 1979 movie adaptation of Tess. (Peter Firth also fell down, in my judgment, in playing Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey, so perhaps I merely dislike the actor in those roles.) Eddie’s Angel is both sensitive and believable. He truly wants to make his own way in the world, but he is still governed by his conventional upbringing.
The next installment of Tess of the D’Urbervilles promises many plot twists and surprises. The production is long, but so is the novel. When I read it in college I could not put it down, crying for Tess and hoping (against hope) that events would turn her way. Even knowing the fate that awaits her, I will be glued in front of my flat screen t.v. next week to watch the second installment of this excellent production. Watch Tess of the D’Urbervilles on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic Sunday, January 4 & January 11 at 9 PM EST.