Set in the English countryside during the Victorian era, poor farmer John Durbeyfield (John Collin) is informed that his family descended from the aristocratic d’Urbervilles. It’s an insignificant piece of trivia, as the d’Urbervilles have long since lost their status and any attendant wealth. Still, desperate to pull his family out of poverty, he sends his teenage daughter Tess (Nastassja Kinski) to work for a random d’Urberville family. Here begins the focus of Tess, which happens to be the constant humiliation of its titular character. Kinski, barely an adult at the time of production, stuns with subtle, deeply felt performance. Tess is subjected to many horrors, including (a spoiler alert is necessary here) rape and the death of a child produced by that heinous act.
Along the very deliberately-paced journey, we meet Tess’ partners—some of which are of a romantic nature, others not. Alec Stokes-d'Urberville (Leigh Lawson) is the first to mistreat Tess, while the considerably more mild-mannered Angel Clare (Peter Firth) is the second. Both enter her life, depart, and re-enter again at various points as Tess attempts to earn a living. She is a victim of her era’s inherent sexism, but also of the classism that continues to afflict society’s lowest earners. Opportunities were far and few for Tess, both on a professional and personal level. Rather than get further into spoiler territory, suffice it to say that Tess resorts to some highly unethical choices, regardless of her oppressed status. In the end, rooting for Tess is a challenge but Polanski’s dry-eyed take on the material maintains an air of believability as she eventually meets her fate.
Cinematographers Ghislain Cloquet and Geoffrey Unsworth won Academy Awards for Tess (posthumously for the latter, who passed away during production and was replaced by the former). Criterion’s new 4K scan, created from the original 35mm negative, does their work full justice. Beams of sunlight filtering through the trees during one of Tess’ horseback scenes glow beautifully. Despite an intentionally soft-focus look, detail remains excellent in close-up shots. Source print flaws are virtually non-existent. This transfer offers a carefully restored image from beginning to end.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is never busier than it needs to be. In all honesty, this is a relatively straightforward, front-centric mix that no one will mistake as a showpiece. But Philippe Sarde’s Oscar-nominated score sounds lush and expansive, providing the film’s most sonically interesting aspects. Much of Tess is inherently pretty quiet, but the audio here is presented at appropriate levels and without a hint of distortion or any other problem.
The supplements lineup includes a series of well-produced, older pieces. The most recent is the 2006 doc “Once Upon a Time Tess,” which runs 52 minutes. Many of the film’s principals are interviewed, including Polanski, Kinski, producer Claude Berri, and more. A series of three 2004 pieces directed by Laurent Bouzereau, “On the Making of Tess,” run about 75 minutes together. The first part explores the adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel while the second and third deal more directly with the actual production period. A 50-minute episode of The South Bank Show focuses on Polanski’s career. Another vintage TV piece of a similar length, the French Cine regards, also looks at Polanski’s career, with a stricter focus on Tess. An illuminating essay by film critic Colin MacCabe is included in the Blu-ray booklet.
Painterly in composition, Tess is a textbook example of a film that is easy to appreciate both technically and intellectually, but considerably more difficult to bond with on an emotional level. The Criterion Collection has done an extraordinary job in bringing the film to Blu-ray on a wider scope than before (Pathe Distribution previously issued the film in France as a Region B disc, with many of the same supplements, now out of print).