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A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented: An Advance Look at PBS' "Tess of the d'Urbervilles"

Last year, PBS and station WGBH--which produces such fine series as Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!--had an idea: they would combine the two series and then split the new series, simply called Masterpiece, into three sections: Classic, Contemporary, and Mystery. These new sub-series would better showcase the individual ideas contained therein and remain branded both individually and under the Masterpiece umbrella.

This Sunday, PBS stations will debut the 2009 season of Masterpiece Classic, which includes adaptations of works by Charles Dickens, including the eagerly awaited Little Dorrit, Oliver Twist, and David Copperfield, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, and Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, which kicks off the season on January 4th.

Adapted by David Nicholls (Starter for Ten), Tess of the d'Urbervilles, written by Thomas Hardy in 1891, tells the story of Tess Durbeyfield (Quantum of Solace's Gemma Arterton), a girl from a shiftless rural family whose drunken patriarch discovers that they might be descended from an ancient titled family, the d'Urbervilles, and have only in recent centuries fallen hard on their luck. It's this discovery and John Durbeyfield's hubris in thinking that they could reclaim their lost place in aristo society by claiming connection to the moneyed d'Urbervilles, that sends poor, pure Tess into danger of both a moral and mortal nature.

Pushed by her manipulative mother Joan (played, one must note, with flair by Gavin & Stacey's Ruth Jones), Tess goes to see the reclusive dowager Ursula d'Uberville (Anna Massey) to claim relation but runs afoul of her wastrel son Alec (The Tudors' Hans Matheson), who quickly finds himself drawn to Tess' purity and beauty. Giving her a job as the manager of the family chicken ranch, Alec quickly sets out to seduce Tess as recompense for the kindness he's shown her family, including a new horse for her father and toys for Tess' many brothers and sisters.

After spiriting her away from her fellow rustic mechanics on the estate (who drunkenly descend on Tess in a rage for her airs), Alec strands Tess in the woods and rapes her. In Hardy's novel, this scene is a matter of conjecture: it's not meant to be entirely clear reading the book if the scene is in fact a rape, or as Alec maintains, a seduction. Here, however, the truth is palpably seen and felt by the viewer and there is no doubt whatsoever that Alec commits a grievous offense in the woods against poor Tess.

What follows is a depressing tale of a woman held accountable by society for crimes against her own person. Tess runs away from the d'Urberville estate (after a puzzling scene, not included in the novel, in which she breaks down in front of Ursula) and refuses any assistance from Alec. Returning to her village, she bares his child and names it Sorrow; the baby dies a short time later and, as Tess' father refused to let it be baptized, is refused a Christian burial. And so Tess embarks on yet another journey, to a dairy, where she meets Angel Clare (The Good Shepherd's Eddie Redmayne), a parson's son whom she had glimpsed years earlier during the May Day dance in her village. Despite promising to never marry, Tess finds herself drawn to Angel and wants to unburden herself by telling him the truth about her past.

Tess of the d'Urbervilles offers a heartbreaking look at the twisted morality of those bygone years and how so much sadness and destruction can spring forth from one fateful discovery or a chance decision. Directed by David Blair, Tess beautifully incorporates the scenery of Thomas' mythic Wessex countryside and is gorgeously filmed. Unlike some staid period adaptations, this four-hour miniseries stands apart for some innovative shot compositions and dramatic visual direction, though it lacks the energy and visceral pop of the recent Bleak House.

Gemma Arterton is perfectly cast as Tess Durbeyfield, allowing the viewer to see both her purity and simmering rage in equal measure. It's a tough character to embody as the novel's Tess isn't entirely sympathetic but Arterton makes her a compelling and sensitive character who is undone by the actions of those around her. Likewise, Hans Matheson makes an extremely believable aristocratic villain, resolute in his pursuit for Tess, across years and the countryside, even after an unconvincing spiritual conversion following Ursula's death. Eddie Redmayne is the ideal Angel Clare, embodying both the essence of goodness of his character's spot-on name and his very steadfast belief in the law of double standards. Additionally, one cannot say enough about Ruth Jones' turn as Joan Durbeyfield, all dourness and spite; despite very limited screen time, she stands out in a cast filled to the brim with fantastic actors.

All in all, Tess of the d'Urberville is a well-crafted adaptation of a novel that was, for its time, extremely controversial in the way that it attacked the morality and vices of its readers. Today, it paints a poignant portrait of the way those same moral sandtraps continue to plague us and how victims can all too often be blamed for being the instrument of their own wrongdoing.

Tess of the d'Urbervilles, part of the 2009 season of Masterpiece Classic, airs Part One on Sunday night at 9 pm on PBS; Part Two airs the following Sunday evening. Check your local listings for details.


Anonymous said…
Thanks for the great review, Jace. I'm really looking forward to seeing this. It has a fantastic cast and I think the beautiful (but bleak) tale will translate well to the screen.
eAi said…
You forgot to mention that it's a BBC program! I would guess Little Dorrit is too, which we've just seen over here and most people say is better than Tess.
I watched part 1 last night, and I loved it. I had been watching Desperate Housewives, and while channel-surfing on a commercial break, I stumbled upon Tess. I couldn't tear my attention from it, and I never got back to DH. I didn't miss it a'tall.

When I saw Hans Matheson, I thought I remembered him from Les Miserables, the non-musical movie with Liam Neeson and Clare Danes. If I'm remembering right, he played Marius.

Gemma Arterton does a wonderful job as Tess, and I can't wait to see the conclusion next week.

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