|Courtesy of Columbia Pictures|
CRITERION DVD Review
1979, 171 minutes
Review by Joshua Handler
Roman Polanski's multi-Oscar-winner Tess is one of the most consistently engaging near-three-hour-long movies I've ever seen. While the very dramatic story doesn't move at a lightening pace, it is so engaging and the film itself is so gorgeous that, up until the final 10 or 20 minutes, I never felt the 171-minute running time. Tess is adapted from Thomas Hardy's classic novel Tess of the d'Hubervilles, which tells the story of Tess (Nastassja Kinski), a teenage girl who lives with her poor family in the English countryside. After Tess' father is told a rumor that he may be related to a local family of aristocrats, he sends Tess to go live with them to see if they can help her family out. Alec d'Huberville (Leigh Lawson) runs the household and lusts after Tess. Tess doesn't respond to Alec's advances, so he rapes her, leading to the chain of events that unfolds throughout the rest of the film.
Tess seems to be Roman Polanski's apology of sorts for the sexual assault that he himself committed. Nothing can take back what Polanski did to Samantha Geimer back in 1977, but this film seems to be an attempt at an apology. This is the first film that Polanski made after fleeing the US.
At one point in Tess, Tess says, "Once a victim, always a victim - that's the law." While some may interpret this as Polanski referring to himself, this line seems to refer to Geimer, as she is a Tess-like figure. For years, she couldn't escape the sexual assault and the resulting publicity, just as Tess could not escape the consequences of the assault and the assaulter. Because we are meant to sympathize with Tess and not Alec, the above line seems to be a reference to Geimer and a call for sympathy for her.
Besides the provocative subtext, so much of what makes Tess such a haunting movie-going experience is the Oscar-winning cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghislain Cloquet, which is among the greatest. Unsworth and Cloquet capture the natural beauty and grime of 19th Century England in stunning detail. Each shot is so perfectly lit and framed that any given one could be framed and put in a museum. The setting sun, girls dancing in a field, and a misty Stonehenge are among the most memorable images. Criterion's beautiful restoration of Tess makes the image look perfect and the colors pop off of the screen.
As mentioned before, Tess is long. 171 minutes is a very long time to sit in front of a TV screen. But, Tess will prove to be more than worth it for those willing to sit. The finale of the film could have been handled in a different fashion, but that is a minor gripe in an otherwise masterful film.
Overall, Tess is one of Roman Polanski's most underrated and most important films. The Criterion edition is a must-own. The film is outstanding and the restoration is truly incredible (though that comes as no surprise given the quality of Criterion's restorations).
Special Features: N/A