German actress Nastassia Kinski (daughter of infamous Werner Herzog-collaborator Klaus Kinski) stars as English rose Tess Durbeyfield, a strong-willed working class girl residing in Hardy’s mythical Wessex. Tess discovers early on in the narrative that she has aristocratic ties by way of her surname – not in fact Durbeyfield, but d’Urberville – and thus heads out to restore some much-needed family honour. However, following a sinister altercation with her lecherous cousin Alec (Leigh Lawson), Tess struggles to come to terms with this most damning of sins – even after falling in love with virtuous reverend’s son, Angel Clare (Peter Firth).
Easily one of the best-looking costume dramas of the 1970s (a sun-soaked Brittany substituting for southwest England with magnificent effect), Polanski’s Tess is a lavish adaptation of Hardy’s romantic saga – if, ultimately, a little lightweight in the drama department. Despite sporting an outrageous German-inflected southwest accent throughout, Kinski is a fine Tess, a bona fide dreamer and tragic victim of circumstance. Her European intonations only help to cement her role as ‘the other’, perpetually shunned by those closest to her – though by no real fault of her own. Support is sadly less assured, with only Firth’s Angel coming close to capturing the essence of his character as Kinski captures hers. Tellingly, such performance-related failings are largely glossed over by cinematographers Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghislain Cloquet’s vivacious visuals.
Where Polanski’s Tess really stumbles, however, is in its devout dedication to adapting Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles almost word for word. What we get with this approach is an all-too safe commemoration of the British writer’s most cherished work, rather than a harder-edged expose of Victorian class mobility and/or religious hypocrisy. You only have to look at Andrea Arnold’s revisionist 2011 take on Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights to see a literary adaptation risk everything, yet come out the other side all the better for its artfulness and daring. On this occasion at least, Polanski appears to have skirted around the controversial.