Just how important is a name? Well, for some it can be insignificant; a mere title that bears no greater implication. But, for others, having the right name can mean everything, denoting status, privilege, and even self worth. In the case of Roman Polanski's 'Tess,' the seemingly inconsequential difference between the common surname Durbeyfield and the elegant d'Urberville ends up radically altering the life of its protagonist in profound and irreversible ways. A classical romantic drama filled with literary texture and gorgeous imagery, the film is a beautifully crafted period piece that aches with longing and tragedy, taking audiences on a sweeping journey through love and hardship.
Based on Thomas Hardy's famous novel, "Tess of the d'Urbervilles," the story follows a late 19th century English farm girl named Tess (Nastassja Kinski). Though her peasant family goes by the name Durbeyfield, Tess' father soon discovers that they are actually direct descendants of the d'Urbervilles, a once prominent and wealthy family. Hoping to take advantage of this connection, he sends Tess to meet their surviving cousins. There she is greeted by the lustful Alec d'Urberville (Leigh Lawson) who reveals that they are not actually related, and that his family purchased the surname for its prestige. Regardless, Alec becomes infatuated with Tess and forces himself upon her. Unhappy, Tess returns to her family and eventually finds true love in the arms of another, the innocent and noble Angel (Peter Firth). But the poor woman's past comes back to haunt her, threatening to ruin her chance at real happiness.
With her striking beauty and piercing eyes, Kinski carries the film admirably, imbuing the title character with a self-sufficient spirit, a delicate serenity, and a nearly stubborn resolve. Though only seventeen at the time of production, the young actress displays a remarkable penchant for the screen, allowing her to reveal hidden layers to the character through solemn glances and pensive stares alone. Prone to frequent melancholy and misfortune, the woman often acts as if she deserves to be punished, but it's clear that her regretful circumstances are not her own fault. A cruel victim of fate and hypocrisy, she finds herself ultimately used and abandoned at the hands of two men: one that she despises, and one that she loves.
As the two male leads who complete the film's central love triangle, Leigh Lawson and Peter Firth represent two completely different beasts. Lawson is appropriately smarmy as the lascivious Alec, and though his unsavory actions are often reprehensible, one still gets a sense that he does genuinely care for Tess, allowing his character to stand out as more than a mere one-dimensional foil. On the other hand, Firth's Angel mostly lives up to his namesake, initially representing a pure and chivalrous figure who wants nothing more than to shower Tess with his uncorrupted adoration. Unfortunately, his nobility has its limits, and through his surprising cruelty, the narrative examines the heavy cost of antiquated double standards, weaving a tale filled with deep themes and harshly ironic twists of fate.
Through the trio's epic love story, Polanski tackles many heavy emotions, chronicling a tragedy steeped in guilt, regret, shame, desire, sanctimony, romance, and redemption. And all of these underlying concepts are given grand visual form through the filmmakers' elegant and delicately sumptuous aesthetic. Evoking similarly stylized period pieces like Kubrick's 'Barry Lyndon' and Malick's 'Days of Heaven,' Polanski and his cinematographers transport the audience back in time, fully engaging us in Tess' bygone world. Wide, painterly compositions and slow moving shots create a graceful mood, and the production design and costumes all perfectly convey the late 19th century setting. Characters will frequently move through the background to the foreground of the image in single, extended shots, economically utilizing the director's extensive framing while helping to create a slow and peaceful rhythm. Numerous sequences set during twilight and dusk, bask the screen in the gentle hues of "magic hour," highlighting the beauty and majesty of the environments, elaborating on Tess' own inherent kinship with the natural world.
As both suitors try to define Tess through their own limited ideals and fantasies, Kinski and the director repeatedly reveal her true character, exposing a graceful, strong-willed young woman unjustly stained by her past. Composed through picturesque imagery, stirring music, deep themes, and thoughtful performances, her tragically romantic story becomes a powerful piece of motion picture drama. Whether Durbeyfield or d'Urberville, 'Tess' remains a notable cinematic achievement.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion presents 'Tess' in a Dual Format Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. A BD-50 Region A disc and two DVDs come packaged in a foldout case housed in a cardboard slipcover with spine number 697. A booklet featuring an essay by critic Colin MacCabe is also included.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Beautifully shot and filled with delicately striking imagery, the video presentation remains quite gorgeous throughout.
The transfer is sourced from a 4K scan and restoration of the original 35mm camera negative, and the results are very impressive. The image is essentially pristine with a light layer of natural grain present throughout. Clarity is very pleasing, rendering all of the classical compositions, detailed costumes, and wonderful locations with strong texture and depth. With that said, the film does feature a comparatively soft and diffuse style that works perfectly with the subject matter, giving the images a lightly dreamy and old fashioned quality. Colors adhere to a rustic, earthy palette that bathes the screen in lovely shades of green, yellow, and brown. Sequences shot during "magic hour" are particularly striking, washing the skies in pink, purple, and orange hues. Primaries, like the bold red of a strawberry, also pop from the screen in key instances, offering some visual variety. Contrast is well balanced as well, offering natural whites, though black levels are a little elevated and murky in nighttime shots. Likewise, while the transfer is mostly problem free, there are a few shots where grain appears to spike along with some faint signs of digital noise. Thankfully, these instances are very rare.
By and large, 'Tess' looks marvelous on Blu-ray. Faithfully restored and free from any major issues, this is a very strong transfer that does the movie's gorgeous cinematography justice.
The audio is presented in an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 track. Remastered from the original Dolby stereo mix, the audio sounds great, offering some solid texture and immersion.
Dialogue is mostly clear and full, though some scenes do sound a tad brittle. The front soundstage is full of effective ambiance, spreading birds, crickets, thunder, chickens, and other nature sounds throughout the left, center, and right channels with smooth imaging and directionality. These organic effects are nicely contrasted with the harsher sounds of man-made machinery, which blare from the speakers and intentionally unsettle the mix. Dynamic range is also strong, letting Philippe Sarde's stirring musical score soar. Bass activity is solid during key sounds and music cues as well. With that said, surround activity is notably muted, though this appears to be faithful to the original sound design.
Thankfully, there are no age-related problems, crackling, hissing, or pops. Though it's not quite as enveloping as modern mixes, the audio does a wonderful job of complementing the visuals and narrative, further immersing the audience in Tess' world.
Criterion has put together a very informative and comprehensive collection of special features, including several documentaries. All of the supplements are presented in upscaled 1080i with Dolby Digital 1.0 or 2.0 audio and English subtitles for the foreign language portions (unless noted otherwise).
Filled with gorgeous images, strong performances, and powerful drama, Roman Polanski's 'Tess' is a sweeping and tragic cinematic romance. Both the video transfer and audio mix are very strong, preserving the beautiful cinematography and music. Criterion has included a great collection of special features, filling the disc with vintage and retrospective interviews and documentaries that cover every aspect of the film's production. Visually stirring and emotionally resonant, the movie remains a noteworthy piece of the famed director's impressive filmography, and this is an impeccable Blu-ray release. Highly Recommended.