TESS – 1980 – movie – based upon the novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy – screenplay by Gerard Brach, Roman Polanski, John Brownjohn - directed by Roman Polanski – the players are: Tess Durbeyfield (Nastassja Kinski), Angel Clare (Peter Firth), Alec d’Urberville (Leigh Lawson), Mrs. Durbeyfield (Rosemary Martin), Miriam (Carolyn Pickles), Izzy (Suzanna Hamilton), Vicar of Marlott (Richard Pearson), Reverend Clare (David Markham) – costume design (Anthony Powell), Music (Philippe Sarde), Production Design (Pierre Guffroy and Jack Stephens) - camera work (Geoffrey Unsworth, who died during filming and Ghislain Cloquet) - edited by Alastair McIntyre and Tom Priestley..
Hollywood Flashback: Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth Posthumous Oscar - “TESS”.
The movie got 6 nominations and won 3 Oscars for Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, and Best Cinematography. Robert Redford got Best Director that year for Ordinary People. Sorry Bob… not even close. Oscar politics strikes again!
Filming took place during a 9 month period in the French regions of Brittany and Normandy. The landscape and many of the rural towns retained their 19th century look. Still, power lines had to be hidden and dirt and gravel was used to cover the roads. For the closing scene, an exact replica of Stonehenge was created in a broad, flat open meadow.
The Victorian era in England was not a pleasant time to be a woman; especially as a member of the middle and lower classes. Tess Derbyfield is the beautiful 16 year old daughter of an old aristocratic family that has been reduced to subsistence level by her alcoholic father; their heritage lost in time. Their ancient name, d’Urberville was purchased by the wealthy, local Stokes family in an attempt to raise their family’s status.
In our opening scenes Polanski has dressed the village’s young girls in virginal white and sets them to dance a pristine green field lit by a warm setting sun. It is May and the day before Tess’s life begins its four year downward spiral.
Tess is sent by her family – but not without feelings of guilt – to gain a foothold with the Stokeses and thereby hopefully improve their meager existence.
She is raped by Alec Stokes, and now pregnant, is forced to leave and return to her family. Her infant boy suffersfrom a lingering illness and dies.
Although she has properly baptized the child, the priest refuses to allow her little boy to be buried on church grounds.
She returns and under the cover of night, digs a shallow grave near the church wall and leaves behind forever, her child, a cross, and a vase of flowers.
It is in these opening scenes and then throughout the movie Nastassja Kinski displays a capability to capture us with her range of subtle emotion.
Polanski has brought Hardy’s beautiful vision to life, to be sacrificed on the altar of Queen Victoria's puritanical wish to rid society of "the wicked folly of Woman’s Rights”. What a difference a little time makes, in just a few short years she could have been saved by the death of Queen Victoria and the dawn of the Edwardian age.
Tess’s plight dramatizes the dualistic standards for men and women, which were dictated and enforced by the rigid and ultra-conservative Church. The Church’s rules promoted the inequities of the sexes and reduced women to childbearing, household-managing, help-mates. Men, suffering from the pressure of implicit guilt, found themselves saddled with a morally superior role that inevitably proved impossible to live by or maintain.
The hypocrisy of Christian mores forms the basis of the majority of writing about this era. The Church’s male-dominated rules, governing all social life, were enforced by the sexually repressed, vengeful men who ruled the Church of England with a cold, iron fist.
Tess finds that she is now on her own and gains employment in a dairy farm. It is here that she meets and falls in love with Angel, the son of a local church minister. Her attempt to tell Angel of her rape and child is thwarted.
It isn’t until after their marriage, and during their mutual confessional that Angel finds he cannot forgive Tess for being raped by Alec and bearing his child. It is a classic example of the dualistic standards enforced by the Church. Angel leaves Tess, and flees to Brazil where he expects to start a farm.
Please keep in mind, this was only a century ago… just a flicker in the pages of time. Look around… much of that attitude and many of those rules are still in power today.
Women in the US finally gained the right to vote in 1922. Today, women still earn,
on average, 20% less than men for the same job. In 1965 my wife and I opened joint accounts at Chase Manhattan bank. A few months later she wanted to open her own checking account…. the bank would not let her do so without her “husband’s” approval. I wanted to ask the bank “why” she needed my permission, but not wanting to be confrontational she said, “just sign the form”.
Will these indignities ever end? America has just elected a president who promotes the degradation of women. And with our current president’s backing, racial and sexual harassment on the job is on the rise, and is to be expected. He advised his daughter… if you don’t like it, quit and find another job. Hopefully, all the female leads in movies and in many of current television’s popular programing, such as Law And Order, will have the desired effect and future generations of women will have equal footing in business and the arts.
Compounding her plight, Tess was born at a time in history when the rural life that had sustained families like hers was coming to a close. The agricultural revolution was well under way; new mechanical implements were in the fields and steam driven machines were transforming traditional farming into an assembly line process.
The increase in mechanized productivity forced the unemployed men from the farm to the factory. Men moved to the cities to take up their positions as cogs in the wheel of the industrial revolution. Left with diminished choices, single women were left to labor in the fields.
Angel is sickened by malaria while in Brazil and is forced to return to his family to recuperate. It is here that he discovers the letters from Tess, which his family withheld, and in which she confesses her continued love. This discovery sends him on a search to find her, and to redeem himself.
Alec Stokes has not given up his pursuit of Tess and, promising to save her destitute family, induces her to live with him. At this point in our story Angel, driven by his unspoken guilt finds Tess and, asking her forgiveness, pleads for her to join him. In a last desperate confrontation, Alec refuses to release her and Tess kills him with a knife.
She and Angel meet at the train station where she tells him that she has murdered Alec. They travel north hoping to make it to a port city, but they are discovered by a housekeeper in an unoccupied home. We find them again fleeing north, but they are now aware that the end is near.
It is again May, four years have passed since our opening scenes. At the end of the day they find themselves at Stonehenge, where Tess collapses from exhaustion on one of the stone alters which is still warm from the day’s sun.
Just before dawn they are discovered by the authorities. Tess is unable to flee and delay her fate for one last time. A victim of her own pure beauty, she is denied the finality of redemption and led away to be tried, found guilty of murder and hanged.
And as the final chapter comes to a close, the Church has a last extracted its retribution. An angel betrayed by love, and by God.