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France/United Kingdom 1979
Directed by
Roman Polanski
190 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars


Knowing beforehand that this adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 'Tess of the d'Urbervilles', was produced by Claude Berri (Jean De Florette, Manon Des Sources et. al.) leads one to expect a glossy, picture book of the classic 19th century English novel. Having Roman Polanksi at the helm might lead one to expect a darker twist than is usually associated with Berri-produced films. But no, Hardy’s heart-rending story of a young girl destroyed by the moral standards of the day is realized with Berri's typically meticulous attention to detail (although the film was shot in Britanny rather than the Wessex of the novel) but without an ounce of Polanski's passion.

Nastassja Kinski is Tess Durbeyfield, the poor-but-proud country lass who falls into the groping hands of wealthy cad and pretend-aristocrat Alec d'Urberville (Leigh Lawson). The wages of sin are duly realized and Tess’s sickly baby soon dies. Salvation seems at hand in the arms of Angel Claire (Peter Firth), but when he finds out her past, he  gets on his high horse and, so to speak, trots off to Brazil. Her father dies and to save her indigent family she returns to the wicked Alec. Eventually Angel realizes what a prat he has been and returns to do right by her, but too late.

In a role that ten years earlier would have been a shoe-in for Julie Christie, the overly-demure Kinksi completely lacks the head-strong wilfulness necessary for the character and that Christie would have brought to it. Kinski was a hot property at the time but why, aside from her limitations as an actress, with her heavy accent she was cast as the iconically-English heroine defies understanding. The film won Oscars for its cinematography, costumes, and art direction and they are deserved but Polanski’s hand is not evident and this deficiency only manages to make one aware of the film's seeming interminability.




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