My review of Masterpiece Classic’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (2008 ), Part One, was rather benign considering all the horrible events the poor girl had to endure. Tess, having weathered as much misfortune in two years as most people experience in a lifetime, weds her Angel and confesses her sin. Now here’s where the plot became problematic for me: As a woman living in the modern world, I cannot like Angel. Yes, he’s young and idealistic and has already bent the rules by marrying Tess, sacrificing a bit of the family honor in the process, but his actions smack too much of high school, where a boy will pursue a girl, then drop her because she’s a slut. “The woman that I love is not you,” he said after hearing her out, and I know this is the point author Thomas Hardy was trying to make. Different worlds. Different manners. Different mores. Clash of cultures. Regardless, I cannot forgive Angel for abandoning Tess after she’s revealed that she’s carried another man’s child. Angel’s attitude remained prevalent well into the 1960’s, and I thank my lucky stars to be living in this enlightened, more forgiving time. Without this crucial plot development, we’d be staring at a happy ending, but the viewer still has almost half of this two-part film to watch.
Eddy Redmayne and Gemma Arterton were splendid in this scene. Gemma as Tess is at first brimming with hope, then crestfallen as she begs for Angel’s forgiveness. Redmayne manages to show conflicting feelings – anger, hurt, and love – as he bids Tess goodbye, unable to accept from his rigid, puritanical upbringing that she’s a fallen woman.
Tess returns home, having failed once again. Explaining her decision to reveal her secret, she says simply to her mother: “I love him. It would have been a sin to deceive him,”demonstrating her purity of heart and innate goodness. With Angel heading for Brazil, Tess prepares to find employment … and jumps from the frying pan straight into the fires of hell. In her new position as a farm girl on bleak Flintcombe-Ash farm, Tess remeets an evil enemy from her time on the D’Urberville estate. Groby, the farm manager, shows her no pity and cuts her no slack during a harsh winter. Worse, Tess will not be paid until after a year’s hard labor.
Coincidentally (for the plot now depends on many such twists) Tess finds Marion, her milkmaid friend, working at this inhospitable place. Not surprisingly, Izz joins them too. And when the two former milkmaids ask questions about her marriage, Tess’s replies: “No pity. No questions either. I’m just plain Tess Durbeyfield, just as before.”
One cannot help to continue watching this trainwreck of a plot as the melodrama keeps churning. It is human nature, after all, to stand still and observe another’s misfortune. Tess goes to visit Angel’s family to ask them for help, but changes her mind. Returning to the farm, she stumbles upon a revival tent with Alec inside it. One must suspend disbelief and suppose that everyone lived within walking distance of each other, and that frequent encounters out of the blue did not seem coincidental.
After his mother’s death and a tussle with his soul, Alec becomes a preacher, but one look at Tess and all the faith is knocked out of him. Alec then leaves his new calling … just like that. Hans Matheson and the film’s writer try their best to interject some reality into Alec’s scenes and solicit sympathy for his character, but at this point I felt it was best just to watch the film and not make logical sense out of events as they unfolded.
Tess was put on this earth to suffer, and suffer she does, with misfortune rolling her way every time she turns around. She forfeits a year’s wages for her backbreaking work when she returns home to visit her ill father. After his death, the family must leave their leased house because, while her mother and siblings are respectable, Tess is not. The persistent Alec follows the family as they seek another lodging, stalking Tess and pressuring her to be with him. With no money, house, job, or prospects, Tess finally succumbs to his relentless advances. She has given up on Angel, believing he will never return.
Meanwhile Angel has been sick in Brazil and has undergone a sea change in attitude. After recovering from yellow fever, he returns home and goes on a quest to find Tess. He pays a heavy penance as he learns of her life after he abandoned her, realizing what misery she’s experienced. When he locates her in the resort town of Sandbourne, looking like the scarlet woman she’s become, she begs him to leave, crying out: “It is too late for me now, I’m already dead!” Portentous words. After coming such a long way to find her, he seems to give her up rather quickly, but Tess is made of sterner stuff.
Gemma’s beautiful features flit from innocent to worldly to distressed and angry as she convincingly plays an older and wiser Tess. She confronts Alec, who is nasty, spiteful, and possessive, and kills him. One can imagine how scandalized the Victorian reading public was with this turn of events. According to the PBS press release, “Tess of the D’Urbervilles was so shocking that Hardy had to withhold selected chapters during its first appearance in serial form.These chapters were later restored in the published volume.”
Tess and Angel share only two days of tender bliss as he tries to help her escape from the law. Angel is now completely on her side and will not abandon her, but Tess knows it’s too late. Instead of leaving their shelter she begs him for one more night as man and wife: “Why put an end to all this joy?” Why indeed?
Poor Tess. Poor, doomed Tess. Hunted as fugitives, she and Angel spend their last night together at Stonehenge. This stone age monolith is an appropriate setting for the denouement of a tale that is all about a clash of cultures in a changing age. The death imagery is a bit heavy handed in these scenes, but at this point the viewer has given up on subtletly. As the law closes in on her, Tess tearfully embraces Angel: “It couldn’t have lasted,” she said, “Too much happiness.” Which is when I drew out my hanky and bawled.
Thomas Hardy felt passionate about this novel. “To him, Tess was a symbol of rural Britain, a pagan goddess at odds with the social and technological change sweeping across England’s West Country in the late 19th century.” (PBS Press Release) To me, her story is heart breaking. I agree with her friend Izz Huet, who concluded after speaking with Angel, “Whatever she’s done, she doesn’t deserve this.”
For sheer gut wrenching entertainment value, I give this production high marks, but as a Janeite, I can only give Hardy’s soap opera plot a grade that barely passes.