Based on Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Roman Polanski’s Tess is dedicated to Sharon Tate, who had suggested the novel as a vehicle for herself. Perhaps it’s fitting then, that while the film is visually stunning; it lacks vitality, of Hardy’s novel, keeping things very reserved for the nearly three hour runtime.
Poor farmer John Durbeyfield (John Collin) discovers that he’s descended from the D’Ubervilles, a Norman (French) clan that went to England with William the Conqueror. Eventually, the D’Ubervilles lost their estates and wealth, though John Durbeyfield still has some eating utensils with a special crest. He decides to send his eldest daughter Tess (Nastassja Kinski) to visit with a wealthy family named D’Uberville to see if the family can improve its impoverished status. Tess does meet some D’Ubervilles, but it turns out that her “relatives” were once known by another name and simply bought the D’Uberville title in order to solidify their social status.
And so begins Tess’ terrifying descent into social rejection. Alec d’Uberberville (Leigh Lawson) finds himself immediately smitten by Tess; she is quickly given a job running his mother’s chicken farm. Alec flirts with her for a little bit, but it’s not long before he rapes her. She becomes his mistress for awhile, but eventually leaves the farm. From there, she is forced to take a series of backbreaking menial jobs. She finds love with a devout Christian man (Peter Firth), though her past threatens to keep them apart. I won’t say much more, except Thomas Hardy isn’t known for his happy endings.
While Tess is filled with gorgeous cinematography (Ghislain Cloquet and Geoffrey Unsworth won an Oscar for their work), at 172-minutes, it becomes oppressive. The novel is long because it offers details about how the British class system forced most to live in extreme poverty. The film makes the same point in just a few powerful shots. As such, some more work in the editing room could have made Tess feel more like the powerful film it was meant to be, then the chore it sometimes becomes.
The acting is very good. Nastassja Kinski is convincingly naïve when necessary, but tough as nails when it comes to the man she loves. Peter Firth is also impressive as the love of Tess’ life. Tess may not be one of Roman Polanski’s best films, but it’s certainly one of his most visually stunning works.
Given a new 4K digital restoration, and shown in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio, Criterion’s 1080p transfer is excellent. Black levels are spot on, while tight contrast allows for extremely rich visuals. The image quality has a nice earthy look, with the golden look of farmer’s fields coming through spectacularly. This Blu-ray does a fabulous job of replicating the theatrical experience.
The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. track offers a wonderful sense of depth. The restrained score by Philippe Sarde is crisp throughout, adding to the viewing experience. There’s a great range of nuanced sounds throughout—rain, thunder, farm chores—and dialogue is clean and clear.
English SDH subtitles are available.
The following extras are included:
- Once Upon a Time… “Tess” (HD, 52:47) A 2006 documentary on the making of Tess by Serge July and Daniel Ablin. The film features interviews with with director Roman Polanski, producer Claude Berri, co-producer Timothy Burrill, composer Philippe Sarde, and Nastassja Kinski, and others.
- On the Making of Tess: three short documentaries directed by Laurent Bouzereau in 2004:
- From Novel to Screen (HD, 28:51) Director Roman Polanski shares how Tess came to be. There’s also some good information on Thomas Hardy and his novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, as well as clips from archival interviews with Professor Michael Irvin, expert in the work of Thomas Hardy, writer and researcher Claire Seymour, co-producer Timothy Burrill, producer and director Claude Berri, screenwriter John Brownjohn, Nastassja Kinski, casting director Mary Selway, and actor Leigh Lawson (Alec d’Urberville), and others.
- >Filming Tess (HD, 26:12) Roman Polanski discusses the shooting process. There are also archival interview clips with co-producer Timothy Burrill, executive producer Pierre Grunstein, actor Leigh Lawson, hairdresser Marc Ludovic Paris, chief electrician Jean-Claude Lebras, and costume designer Anthony Powell, among others.
- Tess: The Experience (HD, 19:39) Roman Polanski discusses the experience of filming Tess. Also included are interviews with makeup artist Didier Lavergne, costume designer Anthony Powell, and actor Leigh Lawson, among others.
- The South Bank Show (HD, 50:27) In this 1979 episode of The South Bank Show, Melvyn Bragg interviews director Roman Polanski about Tess and his career. Also included are archival clips from the shooting of the film, as well as archival clips from other Polanski films.
- Cine regards (HD, 48:49) In this 1979 episode of the French television show, we are treated to raw footage from the shooting of Tess in the French countryside. There is also archival footage of an interview with Roman Polanski.
- Trailer (HD, 1:51) Original trailer for Tess.
- Booklet: An illustrated booklet with an essay by critic Colin MacCabe.
- 2 DVDs containing the film, and all the extras available on the Blu-ray.