Roman Polanski tries to adapt Thomas Hardy's classic novel.



It had been nearly ten years since his wife Sharon Tate was murdered in August of 1969 by members of the Charles Manson cult when director Roman Polanski began filming his adaptation of Thomas Hardy's classic novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles.


Hardy's story of a woman wronged, rich with eloquent descriptions of the British countryside, was an odd choice for Polanski, whose previous films, The Tenant (1976) and Chinatown (1974), were brilliant examples of the urban paranoia and mental decay that made his work so distinctive.


Yet Tess was the most personal film Polanski had ever made. The last time Polanski saw Tate alive, she had given him a copy of the novel. The words "to Sharon" pass by at the end of Tess's opening credits. Tate had been convinced that Polanski would one day make a great film of Hardy's book.


Whether she was right is definitely a matter of opinion. Tess was nominated for six Oscars, winning for cinematography, art direction, and costume design, and losing for best picture, director, and score. But over twenty years later and now on DVD, Tess feels more like an oddity in Polanski's oeuvre than a best picture nominee.


The film's beauty remains apparent, despite a so-so DVD transfer. Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (Cabaret, 2001: A Space Odyssey), who died during production and was replaced by Ghislain Cloquet (Night and Fog), paints the screen with yellows and greens, continually returning to shades of golden brown, as if a copy of Hardy's novel had been left to bake in the sun until its pages were the color of its scenery.


What also remains is the glaring contrast between Polanski's sensibility and Hardy's. In the novel, guilty at her perceived role in the death of her family's horse, Tess allows herself to be seduced by a benefactor who abandons her, unaware she's become pregnant. Hardy used the unjust treatment Tess later receives at the hands of her husband Angel and the British judicial system as a platform to condemn both society and the church.


With Nastassja Kinski in the title role, a strange, almost Eastern European air of melancholy hangs over Tess. Polanski clearly has no affinity for Christian guilt, which implies a world in which life should or possibly could be better. One wouldn't be surprised to hear, in the absence of Chinatown's Jack Nicholson, a world-weary milkmaid utter the line "Forget it, Tess, it's Wessex."


Perhaps the success of 2002's The Pianist will wring a great literary adaptation from Polanski. He's currently filming Oliver Twist.


--Joshua Avram

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