No one can make this adaptation better than Polanski.
visually arresting (via the late 2001 DP Unsworth), an utterly compelling breakthrough in the lady Kinski... occasionally quite dry, but made up for by the passions (shown or shoved under the rug) of the characters.
When one hears the name Roman Polanski, most would recall titles like Chinatown, The Pianist, The Ghost Writer, Rosemary's Baby, The Knife in the Water, or The Tenant. For me, the titles that appear in my mind are Tess, Frantic, Macbeth, and Rosemary's Baby (because this one is damn impressive); even if they are lesser than the previously mentioned. I recall these films because they contain either a set of cinematographic beauty or a compelling leading character that stays with you long after they end; it does not matter if their screenplays are inferior to Polanski's other works.
Tess is an adaptation of the classic novel, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy, which I have not read; ergo my feelings towards this film will be based on what the film only projected onto me. Its premise is a fascinating one that covers the life of this young girl, built with immaculate and outstanding beauty, and the trouble that attribute has caused her. Tess is a woman full of innocence and grace before hearing the truth of her family's past; descendants of a noble name and family. It is through this knowledge, similar to what Polanski has shown in Macbeth, beginning to consume the minds of the family's parental figures, ambitiously hoping and striving for what they consider to be also theirs; they send their daughter Tess to the d'Urbervilles for employment.
It was when she steps into the d'Urbervilles' manor that she was immediately introduced, and slowly seduced, by her cousin Alec d'Urbervilles. Alec's high stature within society has made him such a selfish and cunning individual, taking what he desires, regardless of how the other person would feel; and he does so with patience and cunningness, he pounces on Tess at her most vulnerable, and from there he changes her entire life. Tess is now carrying a history of sin, despite the fact that she was forced into it as society seems more unforgiving during the past, and through this, it has given her a difficult life; naturally sabotaging all of her wonderful opportunities in her future.
Everyone around Tess is aware of her radiating and infectious beauty, which sparks up feelings of lust, jealousy, love, and anger. It is through this beauty that she is placed in difficult situations; letting other people's agendas and usage of her, shape Tess' life; she is always unconsciously in the mercy of others, slowly damaging her and moving her further and further away from what she used to be. What makes Tess such a compelling figure is that even though she becomes aware of her inherent flaw, she does not attempt to adapt her personality and values; succumbing to greed and manipulation, to survive this difficult world. She simply lives with it and tries her best to maintain that sense of purity, despite the physical and emotional suffering it causes her.
The character Tess may be an interesting figure to follow, sadly the road that Polanski creates for her, is not as engaging as I hoped it would be. My negative feelings are found during the last hour and 20 minutes of the film, where things are definitely sliding down hill for the character, but a lack of compelling drama, made it a chore to sit through. The pacing I felt during its final hour is too slow, indulging itself in scenes that do not require a lengthy period of time to convey. The film's conclusion also lacked the resonating punch that I was hoping from a film like this, its final scene and the events that led up to it did not move me whatsoever; it's a shame since this film started off so strongly.
The film's strongest asset is its cinematography, crediting both Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghislain Cloquet. Unsworth was the film's initial director of photography but he unfortunately died during the third week of shooting; he was then replaced by Cloquet soon after. Unsworth is a figure that I respect highly due to his amazing contribution to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Tess would have been, I believe, Unsworth's best film; achieving such glowing beauty that many period films barely reach. I cannot speak the same for Cloquet because I have yet to see any of the films that he has worked on, but what he has delivered here; which contributes for the second half of the film, is just as moving and as gorgeous as Unsworth's contributions. Pair both of their photography with wonderful costume and set design then what you get is perfect imagery. I watched this film in a DVD from my local library and the quality is far from the superior efforts from the Criterion Collection; how much more would I adore this film if I saw this through Criterion's remastered print, or in the theatres.
The film's musical score by Philippe Sarde was not as wonderful as I expected it to be. There were a couple of instances where it matches strongly, hand in hand, with the film's photography. Sarde's score simply tried too much to be dramatic during a couple of spots, letting the film feel overbearing and at times cringe-worthy; though its flaws were thankfully not abundant enough to beat this film down as dull or overly tiresome.
The performance in this film was powerful, with a compelling performance by Nastassja Kinski; one of the most beautiful women to be graced in cinema. Her physical appearance perfectly captures that sense of beauty and innocence that shape its character; Kinski plays the role as subtle, forcing to only be melodramatic when the scene demands it. Leigh Lawson as Alec d'Urberville was great; coming off as sharp and intimidating. It was during the scenes between Lawson and Kinski that the film truly pops; a constant battle between the two individuals, holding tension throughout the scene. Both actors elevate one another's performance, ultimately benefiting the film as a whole.
Tess is a gorgeously shot film that features a compelling protagonist worthy of attention. It is just too bad that the screenplay falls short during the majority of its second half, displaying overlong scenes that provide little emotional effect.