A chance remark causes farmer John Durbeyfield (John Collin) to discover that his family name is in fact d'Urberville, an old noble family dating back to the Norman Conquest. Durbeyfield sends his daughter Tess (Nastassja Kinski, her first name Anglicised to “Nastassia”) to look for employment on the estate of the nearby d'Urberville family. However, the son of the house, Alec (Leigh Lawson) takes advantage of her. Tess returns home, pregnant. The baby does not live long and later Tess meets and falls in love with Angel Clare (Peter Firth) and they marry. But when Angel finds out about Tess's past, it's not to his liking...
The late 1970s were a turbulent time in Roman Polanski's life. He had just fled the USA in the wake of being charged for unlawful sexual intercourse with a thirteen-year-old girl and was resident in France. He was also commercially on the back foot due to the failure of his previous film, The Tenant. So it came as something of a surprise that his first film in his self-imposed exile was a adaptation of a classic Victorian novel, Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, running not far short of three hours, and a film far more family-friendly than most of his work to date. Given that the novel had been controversial in its day and had been bowdlerised for its original magazine publication – and had been Hardy's most commercially successful work – it is notable how restrained Polanski is, given that the novel's storyline involves rape (or reluctant seduction – both novel and film could be read either way) and later murder.
Yet there are darker things below the surface. Polanski's late wife Sharon Tate had given him the novel to read, with her as a good fit for the role of Tess, as he agreed when he read the novel after her death. The film is dedicated to her. Because of his exile, Polanski had to shoot in France, with local countryside standing in for Hardy's Wessex. The film, a French/British coproduction in the English language and France's most expensive production to date, had a lengthy schedule and survived the sudden death of its original cinematographer partway through. Polanski had an affair with his leading lady, who was in her teens at the time. Hardy, still in copyright at the time, had not been as much adapted as other Victorian novelists, the best known film version up to then being John Schlesinger's 1967 take on Far from the Madding Crowd. (There were two silent versions of Tess of the d;Urbervilles in 1913 and 1924, both now lost. Michael Winterbottom, a Hardy fan who has made films of three of his novels, later transplanted Tess of the D'Urbervilles to India in Trishna.)
Tess is a long film from a long novel, and its pace is measured – too much for some. But it holds a grip on its audience. It's the pleasure of sheer craftsmanship: Polanski's direction, and the screenplay by Gérard Brach and Polanski, who wrote in French, with co-writer John Brownjohn, a Devon native, providing the English dialogue and local dialect. The three central performances are excellent. Peter Firth had been acting since childhood, and does still to this day but, still in possession of his looks (and his hair), he makes a fine Angel Clare, his behaviour, undoubtedly hypocritical, the product of weakness rather than malice. Leigh Lawson, in his best screen role, is a study in egotistical privilege and entitlement. But the film belongs to Nastassja Kinski. Sporting an impeccable accent and looking stunning, she gives a commanding performance. This wasn't her first film: she'd appeared in the Hammer film To the Devil a Daughter and a dire Euro sex comedy, Leidenschaftliche Blümchen (which has various English titles – it was Passion Flower Hotel when I saw it late one night on TV). But it was the one which made her name, and for much of the Eighties she was in demand if you wanted exotic European allure. (See also Cat People, during which she had an affair with the director, Paul Schrader.) As well as those three, there is a very solid supporting cast of mostly English actors. Another former child actor and a leading lady for a time in the Eighties, Suzanna Hamilton, plays the role of Izz.
But where Tess is a triumph is in its visuals. It rightly won Oscars for Anthony Powell's costumes and Pierre Guffroy's production design, both making vital contributions to the film's look. However, the third Oscar went to the film's two directors of photography, Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghislain Cloquet. I'll go so far as to say this is one of the great achievements in 35mm colour cinematography of its time. It's worth taking a moment to compare it to one of its few rivals, Days of Heaven, which also won an Oscar. Tess is in Scope, shot with anamorphic lenses, while Days of Heaven was shot with spherical lenses (in an intended ratio of 2:1, as per its DP Nestor Almendros, though I doubt it's been shown wider than 1.85:1). Both films were blown up to 70mm and were presented that way in showcase venues. And both make much use of the different times of day and times of year: Days is known for Almendros's use of the “magic hour” before sunset and darkness (which has become a trademark of the director, Terrence Malick) but it's there in Tess too. And both films were the work of two cinematographers, with a second having to take over from the first in mid-production and both successfully adapting their usual style to fit what had already been shot. For Days, Almendros had to leave because of commitments elsewhere, and Haskell Wexler took over, for which he is credited for “additional photography”. In the case of Tess, the circumstances were tragic, with Unsworth dying of a heart attack (aged sixty-four) and Cloquet having to replace him. Quite rightly, both are credited, and both are named on the Oscar they won, which Cloquet collected. Sadly, when they later won a BAFTA Award for their work, Cloquet had passed away as well. Tess has undergone a 4K digital restoratiun. These days, a new 35mm print (let alone a 70mm one) would be too much to ask for, though this is a film that should be seen on a big screen. However, this Blu-ray from that restoration does do as much justice as the smaller screen can to one of the most visually beautiful films of its time.
Tess is released by the BFI as a dual-format release, made up of a Region B Blu-ray and a Region 2 DVD. Given the BFI's policy of including only HD material on their Blu-rays, you will need the DVD for the set's most substantial extra. The feature begins and ends with French-language text referring to the restoration. There's a fade to black and back up again 110 minutes in, which is where I suspect an intermission used to be.
The transfer is in the original ratio of 2.40:1 (anamorphically enhanced on the DVD). As mentioned above, the film has been given a 4K digital restoration by Pathé. That's in theory a good thing, in practice not always (see Les enfants du paradis for what can go wrong), but it is here. Unsworth and Cloquet deliberately softened the image using (I suspect) gauze in many shots, so this may look a little soft, but that's the intention. Certainly the rich colours and some solid blacks are as I remember them from my two cinema viewings (both in 35mm), and shadow detail is as it should be, as some of those darker twilit exteriors probably tested the limits of anamorphic lenses.
Tess was the first French film in Dolby Stereo, though it's doubtful if many 35mm prints had such a soundtrack. Both times I saw this film in 35mm, it was shown in mono. 70mm prints had a sic-track soundtrack, which then was three front channels, two LFEs and a mono soundtrack – the now-standard 5.1 configuration, with left and right surrounds and one LFE channel, was first used around the same time on Superman and Apocalypse Now. You have a choice of two tracks, LPCM Surround (2.0) and Dolby Digital 5.1, the latter mixed much louder. There's little use of left and right, but quite a lot of surround, much of it Philippe Sarde's music score, plus sounds of the wind and other elements, and in one later scene much agricultural machinery. Hard-of-hearing English subtitles are provided for the feature and the extras.
The only extras to be on both the Blu-ray and DVD discs are two short items. The first is a gallery of Anthony Powell's costume designs (1:40), with his sketches on the left and appropriate stills from the film appearing on the right. The second extra is a theatrical trailer:(1:48), a series of stills dissolving from one to the next, set to Sarde's music score. It's a French trailer, referring at the end to “un film de Roman Polanski”.
Over to the DVD for the remaining extras, or rather one extra split into three parts, though not with a Play All option. This is the making-of documentary and its constituent parts are “From Novel to Screen” (28:40), “Filming 'Tess'” (26:13) and “'Tess' – The Experience” (19:31). This documentary is the work of Laurent Bouzereau and its method will be familiar from other examples: an account straight through from start to finish, based on interviews with key participants and interspersed with clips from the film (letterboxed) and behind-the-scenes stills. Fixed English subtitles are provided to translate the contributions of the French-speakers and optional ones are available for everyone else. (Polanski and Kinski speak in English.) Part One takes us up to the start of filming, while Part Two ends with Unsworth's death and Cloquet's replacement of him. There are plenty of anecdotes and it does what it says on the tin: a solid runthrough of its subject. Some may find the fact that it barely discusses Polanski's circumstances, just that he “left the USA”, distinctly problematic. Produced in 2004 in standard definition, it is presented in 4:3.
As ever, the BFI have provided a booklet with this release. This runs to thirty pages, and begins with an essay, “Tess”, by Philip Horne, which discusses the novel and its reception, going to Polanski's film and its reception in turn – turned down by distributors in the UK and USA and only getting a release in the former country after it had been nominated for six Oscars of which it had won three. The booklet continues with cast and crew credits for the film, a three-page biography of Polanski by Michael Brooke, Polanski's account of the film's making from his autobiography and Anthony Powell's description of his work on Tess, illustrated with some of his sketches.