Given director Roman Polanski’s tumultuous rise and fall during the late ’60s and early ’70s—securing an enviable reputation as a master of suspense films, reaching the A-list with Chinatown (1974), becoming an international pariah following a sex scandal—it was reasonable to expect that he would close out the decade with the kind of perverse cinematic statement for which he was known. Instead, Polanski made Tess, an old-fashioned romantic drama culled from classic literature. Whether inadvertently or strategically, Polanski (somewhat) neutralized his critics by delivering a movie almost completely devoid of any allusions to his lurid life. This maneuver also set the stage for the second act of the Polish-born filmmaker’s career: Exit the enfant terrible, enter the sophisticated classicist. Tess is filmed with the same clinical detachment as his previous pictures, but the movie represents a significant maturation since it is not predicated on shock value.
Adapted from Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which is about a principled young woman who falls victim to callous men and unforgiving social structures, the movie is set in Victorian England. Tess Durbeyfield (Nastassja Kinski) is the daughter of a drunkard laborer, and she seems doomed to a life of back-breaking servitude. When Tess’ father discovers that his family is related to the noble d’Urberville line, Tess is sent to find a position in the household of a local branch of the D’Urberville clan. Thus she meets Alec Stokes-d’Urberville (Leigh Lawson), a cad who seduces and abandons her, unaware that she’s become pregnant. The unbowed Tess delivers the child, who dies soon after, and then Tess tries to restart her life as a fallen woman. Love comes when she meets wealthy Angel Clare (Peter Firth), who has not yet chosen his path in life, but Tess’ past returns to haunt her in unexpected ways.
The narrative underlying Tess is sturdy, of course, though it’s curious that Polanski stretches the film over nearly three hours when the story could easily have been told in much less time. Tess is a film of painful pauses and saturated silences, as the texture of the movie stems as much from what is unsaid as from what is said. Paradoxically, the film is also rather blunt, featuring dialogue that explains the emotional states of characters more explicitly than is necessary. (“You’re so good and gentle,” Angel says to Tess at one point, “I was mad to fear your resentment.”) The nature of the dialogue is, of course, defensible because Polanski and co-screenwriters Gerard Brach and John Brownjohn were writing about a more formal time, but the wordiness can make for some slow going.
Similarly, Polanski’s tendency to linger on moments rides a fine line between creating nuance and practicing directorial self-indulgence; although most of the film’s shots are indeed quite beautiful, it’s as if Polanski couldn’t bear to cut a frame. In the end, this more-is-more aesthetic works in the movie’s favor, because Tess casts a spell. Tess is such a showpiece for Polanski’s wizardry, in fact, that the film’s performances seem incidental.
Firth and Lawson deliver their lines professionally, and both incarnate snobbish entitlement, but neither does work that merits any great excitement. As for leading lady Kinski, her beguiling looks are unquestionably the focus. Simultaneously delicate and feral, she’s a walking personification of innocence blended with sexuality. Her accent wobbles, however, so in some moments she sounds French and in others she sounds German. Furthermore, it seems Polanski guided her to present blank expressions so the context of his storytelling could impart meaning on the canvas of her face. Like the movie’s excessive length, this approach ultimately delivers effective results. Still, a more emotional performance would have generated real dramatic heat.