It’s a queasy irony that Roman Polanski’s first feature after his flight from justice would be a 1979 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess Of The D’Urbervilles, whose main character (played by Nastassja Kinski) is raped by a man who pretends to be her protector. Still, a distrust of power and a sense of society’s cruel indifference were hardly new themes in the Chinatown director’s work. Tess Durbeyfield belongs to a lineage that includes the beset heroines of Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion. The subtext is manifold. Also hovering over the narrative—which in part concerns Tess’ husband abandoning his spouse—is the specter of Polanski’s murdered wife, Sharon Tate, to whom the film is dedicated. She reportedly gave the filmmaker the novel, wanting to play the title role herself.
Aesthetically, Tess might seem like a departure for Polanski, who could shoot stunning widescreen vistas of the Los Angeles River but is perhaps most highly regarded as a master of claustrophobia. His previous film, The Tenant (1976), served as a capstone to his masterful “apartment trilogy.” Staging Hardy in the French countryside, Polanski musters his best impression of David Lean. At first, the succession of magic-hour crane shots seems overbearing. Yet every image—composed by 2001: A Space Odyssey cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, who died during filming, and Ghislain Cloquet—is a painting. The gorgeous 4K restoration Criterion has released on Blu-ray gives full force to the film’s cascading candlelight, ghostly fogs, delicately shaded interiors, and windswept, Millet-esque fields.
Like other Polanski protagonists, Tess is a victim of circumstance, constantly at the mercy of others’ wills. After her father learns the Durbeyfield family is of noted extraction, Tess is sent to seek money from a distant relative. She later learns Alec D’Urberville (Leigh Lawson) is not a relation at all, but a wealthy scoundrel whose family has purchased the landed D’Urberville name. Taking Tess in and giving her a job farming poultry, Alec soon makes his brutish nature known. An out-of-wedlock childbirth makes Tess unmarriageable. When she meets the man she loves, Angel Clare (Peter Firth), she weds him before confessing this past—and once she confesses, he turns on her: “You are not the woman I loved.” One irony built into Hardy’s conception is that modest Tess, forced into lucklessness by others, would be accused of excessive pride.
Not as radically stylized as Polanki’s violent Macbeth, Tess is literature rendered in consummately classical terms. The movie’s smooth rhythms are subtly offset by its sound design, including a use of constantly ticking clocks and sudden intrusions from Philippe Sarde’s sweeping score. The liner notes, by literary critic Colin MacCabe, extensively detail Polanski’s minor-yet-suggestive deviations from the novel, and the other extras include interviews and documentaries on the making of the film.