Review: Tess of the D’Urbervilles 1×1

The Wicker Woman

Tess of the D'Urbervilles

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.

  • I didn’t get much from it. Tess seemed to spend most of her time with one meaningful look or other on her face, which isn’t exactly acting – it’s fine as a series of moments but I didn’t believe in her as a human being – and the rape was one of the most bizarrely staged scenes I’ve ever seen. Not much else happened. I might read the book but I don’t think I can be bothered with the other three parts of the adaptation.

  • I’m not entirely sure she’s supposed to be believable as a human being (cf bit about being a possible pagan goddess and her possible human sacrifice metaphor at Stonehenge later on)
    Plus young Gemma has to work her way up to being 40 by the end of the book, after phase one “The Maiden” at the beginning when she’s supposed to be all naïve, so I don’t think she’s supposed to have too many facial expressions yet. Give her time. Plus she did sniff/sob/etc.

  • Long long time since I read the book, but from memory doesn’t Tess get stuck in the house being seduced for quite a while before she decides to leave? And also Hardy being unable to spell it out, the rape scene happens off camera. I was quite grateful to it all being hazy et al because I’d like the 12 year old to watch it and I suspect she won’t quite gets what’s going on, but as rape scenes go it was rather like him having a bit of fun and her being a bit mealy mouthed about it.
    Having said that, I did enjoy it, and thought she made a good Tess. Angel Clare is a bit livelier then I remember him from the book, and I thought Alec D’Urbeville was wonderfully convincing. Not so convinced by Ruth Jones’ not asking if he was a good man comment, as I think that’s appealing to 21st sensibilities. The point is Tess’ parents are feckless and irresponsible and don’t give a fig for her except as a means to improve their lot in life. I actually think they could have been played like that and it could have had huge resonances for modern society.
    Marie, I think Tess is a bit of an odd book and a bit of a wet character in a way (except she gets better later), but you have to forgive Hardy, he was a bit screwed up about women. At least he TRIED to show that sexual politics was pretty crap for women.
    I’ll be watching again.

  • MediumRob

    “Long long time since I read the book, but from memory doesn’t Tess get stuck in the house being seduced for quite a while before she decides to leave?”
    She gets raped at the end of phase 1 then malingers around for a bit, getting tired of Alec’s seductions at the start of phase 2, before eventually having his baby. That’s what I meant in particular about cutting things down a bit. It’s entirely understandable – I’m not sure how well the idea of a Tess who gets drugged then raped, but decides to hang around a bit afterwards would go down these days…

  • Kayleigh

    Quick comment before I head off to bed, but would you not also consider Christopher Fairbank as a big name?

  • Not really. He’s a relatively well known face for people with long memories or who watch a lot of telly. But he’s not a well known name or star (even despite Auf Wiedersehen Pet)

  • David

    “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.”
    Hardy originally had Alec drug Tess in the original 1891 version of the novel, but by 1912 he had removed this. His later version of the novel made what happened that night in the Chase much more ambiguous, referring to it as ‘confused surrender’ on Tess’s part. Tess’s three week stay at the D’Urbervilles following her ‘seduction’ was also a later addition.
    So to be fair to the BBC, they are using the later version of the novel, which was the one everyone used to read until Penguin, for some bizarre reason, decided to go back to the original one in the latest Classics edition.

  • Ooh. Shows you what can go wrong when I do a “classic catch-up”!

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