In the UK: Sundays, 9pm, BBC1
Good old BBC. Always going off and finding some classic to lavishly adapt for a Sunday evening’s viewing. Here we have Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy’s slightly weird but eternally relevant look at the double standards relating to sexuality that British society has had almost since the dawn of time.
Now the Beeb normally goes in one of two ways with its period stuff. Either it goes all silly, gets an all-star cast and turns everything into an unrelenting series of cameos and over-the-top performances. Or it puts on its serious hat and decides to go full tilt for ‘quality mode’, hoping that it’ll get a backpack full of BAFTAs to take home from the next awards ceremony.
Fortunately, the Beeb has gone for option two with Tess, producing something that’s not 100% true to the book and that’s got more than a few idiosyncrasies of its own, but which is ultimately worth watching – so far, anyway.
The plot so far, so as not to spoil anyone for the rest of the adaptation, is that Tess is a simple country woman who find she might be related to the D’Urberville family. She goes to stake a claim with the family and comes across Alec D’Urberville, who’s a bit of a rake. By the end of the first part, the seemingly inevitable happens and Tess goes home to her family, disgraced.
Now, we’ve had a bit of a mess around already here, since we’ve incorporated bits from two of Tess‘s ‘phases’. And it’s fair to say that there are other minor changes to the plot – Alec, for instance, drugs Tess in the book, but doesn’t here. We’re also losing out a bit on the book’s pagan imagery, with a slightly Wicker Manish dance by maidens at the beginning the only real nod so far at Hardy’s “Tess as Earth goddess” sub-text. and its general insistence that new=bad, old=good and that the closer to nature we are, the better.
And that’s pretty much what we’ve come to expect from the Beeb: ‘regularisation’ of stories to make them more appealing to the mainstream.
All the same, this version of Tess is one of the closest in terms of sticking to Hardy’s off-kilter and unsettling feel and the book’s slightly subversive messages. Despite the changes, this does feel like a worthwhile adaptation with things to say not just about then but now, particularly with respects to the mistreatment of women.
Set design and photography are beautiful. David Blair’s direction is reminiscent, for those of you with long memories, of some of Robin of Sherwood‘s spookier episodes, with odd effects, compositions that intentionally make scenes ‘otherworldly’ and a way of making the trees seem deeply foreboding. The whole story feels intensely claustrophobic most of the time, with only those Pagan ceremonies providing respite and freedom – as Hardy suggested.
It does, at times, have too much of an early 90s rock video feel, with Tess’s rape more distracting that horrifying; the cuts made to the book to make it fit its allotted span mean that there are jumps in narrative that feel more like mistakes than clever editing. But it’s surprisingly individualistic and novel for BBC period direction.
Acting is… interesting. Gemma Arterton makes for a fantastic Tess in almost every respect – if only it weren’t for her dodgy West Country accent. Hans Matheson is a deeply creepy Alec, and Gavin & Stacey’s Ruth Jones does a credible job as Tess’s mum. The only big names in the cast so far, Anna Massey and Kenneth Cranham, both blend into the background, thankfully avoiding any scene stealing.
It’s not the comfortable viewing of many period pieces, but it’s worth watching if you can. You can catch up on the BBC’s web site and if you hunt around a bit, you can find it on YouTube, too.
Here’s a YouTube trailer and clip for you.