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Tess

Director: Roman Polanski

France-U.K.| 1979. Colour. Panavision anamorphic. Dolby stereo. 171 mins.


Dedicated to Sharon Tate, Polanski described his version of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles as ‘the story of innocence betrayed in a world where human behaviour is governed by class barriers and social prejudice.’ He saw Tess’s tale as ‘a study in causality’ where one mistake in the past seems to lead to inevitable tragedy. The novel’s symbolism and even surrealism have been played down, as if nothing must distract from the inescapable linearity Polanski perceives in Tess’s fate.
It is a restrained adaptation but with many visual and dramatic beauties. The night dancing where Angel (Peter Firth) first sees Tess will, in its mysterious lighting, eerily prefigure their final consummation at Stonehenge. On their wedding night, when she inadvertently chills Angel with revelations intended to lay to rest the ghosts of her past, one can almost feel the cold enter the room. One magnificent shot tracks her as she wearily approaches the church of Angel’s parents at the precise moment when the congregation is leaving in the opposite direction: the theme of ‘one against the world’ in Polanski’s universe has rarely found more eloquent visual expression.

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