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  Tess A Lover Spurned
Year: 1979
Director: Roman Polanski
Stars: Nastassja Kinski, Peter Firth, Leigh Lawson, Rosemary Martin, John Collin, Richard Pearson, Carolyn Pickles, Suzanna Hamilton, Caroline Embling, David Markham, Patsy Smart, Dicken Ashworth, Arielle Dombasle, Sylvia Coleridge, Patsy Rowlands, Tom Chadbon
Genre: Drama, RomanceBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 3 votes)
Review: Tess Durbeyfield (Nastassja Kinski) is a peasant girl in Wessex, who has her life turned around by a remark from a pastor to her father (John Collin), telling him that he has discovered during his hobby of genealogy that the Durbeyfields are the last in a line of aristocrats who have fallen on hard times. They family had no idea, but the father makes an attempt at contacting their apparent closest relations, the d'Urbervilles, so Tess is sent to meet them in the hope they will help them financially, being far more wealthy than their cousins. But as Tess arrives at their country house, she is greeted by Alec (Leigh Lawson), who takes an immediate fancy to her...

And so begins Tess's downfall from simple farmgirl to a figure of tragedy in this, the Roman Polanski version of Thomas Hardy's celebrated novel of social injustice. Being a British novel, the elements of class are well to the fore, and so it is with this film, but the director and co-writer had a different idea of the inequality the story brought out and preferred to concentrate on the battle of the sexes instead. This means every male character is responsible for the terrible situations Tess finds herself in, and have a habit of letting down the other females too, so the protagonist becomes something of a martyr for womankind.

This dim view of his fellow men might be explained by Polanski's dedication at the beginning: "For Sharon". Sharon being his late wife, Sharon Tate, who was murdered at the hands of the Manson Family and had offered him the Hardy book a possible future project for him to produce, so in a way Tess could be seen as a stand in for his much abused wife. Amateur psychologists go into overdrive when the possibility of reading too much into the intentions of a filmmaker, or anyone artistic, arises but the fact that Polanski had taken his star Kinski, then still a teenager, as a lover raises the factor of guilt to be put into consideration too, with the director putting in a penance for the misdemeanours of menfolk which included his own good self.

But don't go thinking there's a rich subtext here, there's only as much as you care to interpret as this Tess is a surprisingly tasteful work. Any leering that the main character's beauty inspires is purely in the fictional males she encounters, as the film takes a more jaded approach to the society that would cut Tess's feet from under her solely on the basis that she was easy to look at. Kinski needed a lot more fire in her belly, as in spite of a few instances of standing up for herself she remains an oddly passive heroine, preferring to revel somewhat masochistically in her gloom and the rotten hand life had dealt her while torn between two men who genuinely love her, but show it in disappointing and at times offensive ways.

The first man is Alec, who essentially rapes Tess once she is working for his family, a family who it turns out bought their d'Urberville title to offer them more social standing, and therefore are no relation to her and have no claim to what might have been rightfully her's had things turned out differently. That chance remark by the parson is cruelly ironic, as he meant it as a compliment, an amusing trifle to be shared informally, but begins a downward spiral of misery for Tess which starts with an illegitmate child who dies, leaving her ashamed and with a secret. It does start to look up for Tess when she falls in love properly with Angel (Peter Firth), the vicar's son, but even he is unworthy of her and refuses to have anything to do with her on their wedding night after she takes him into her confidence. He will be back eventually, but with terrible timing. Yet in spite of these emotions, there's something of the pressed flowers about the way Polanski mounted his painterly efforts, lovely photography, but it all plays a little too much at arm's length. Music by Philippe Sarde.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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Roman Polanski  (1933 - )

French-born Polish director who has been no stranger to tragedy - his mother died in a concentration camp, his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family - or controversy - he was arrested for raping a 13-year-old girl in the late 1970s.

Polanski originally made an international impact with Knife in the Water, then left Poland to make Cul-de-Sac and Repulsion in Britain. More acclaim followed with Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown in Hollywood, but his work after escaping America has been inconsistent. At his best, he depicts the crueller side of humanity with a pitch black sense of humour. He also takes quirky acting roles occasionally.

Other films include Dance of the Vampires, adaptations of Macbeth and Tess, What?, The Tenant, dire comedy Pirates, thriller Frantic, the ridiculous Bitter Moon, Death and the Maiden and The Ninth Gate. He won an Oscar for directing Holocaust drama The Pianist, which he followed with an adaptation of Oliver Twist and political thriller The Ghost; he nearly did not complete the latter having been re-arrested on that rape charge. Next were adaptation of stage plays Carnage and Venus in Fur.

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