After reading Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles just shortly before watching the new re-make on PBS Masterpiece, I can fully understand why screenwriter David Nicholls has done what he did. He has turned a heavyweight into a light classic. For if Hardy’s book is to be adapted in spirit and letter, it would certainly be less appealing and just too heavy a burden to cast upon our collective psyche.
As an author, Hardy himself personifies the sadistic ‘President of the Immortal’ he perceives. Humans are just the playthings for The Immortal’s jest. As an agnostic, he can’t just outright blame it all on God, since he isn’t sure even if God exists. But in the book, he makes his readers know clearly the cosmic tragedy his characters are caught in, by turning Browning’s lines into:
God’s not in his heaven: all’s wrong with the world!
If we can see Hardy on the streets today, I’m sure he’s the guy who takes Murphy’s Law to heart: Anything bad that can happen will happen. That’s what he makes of his heroine Tess in the story. A pure, beautiful and innocent country girl, fresh and untouched for life, is being caught in all sorts of circumstances that will bring only heart-wrenching consequences, one after the other all the way to the end.
David Nicholls has spared us the looming Hardy worldview and lightened it up for us, and I don’t blame him for that. For who needs more tragedies of cosmic proportion in this very tumultuous time in our human history. Mind you, he has presented the plot faithfully. In this first part at least, you see the sequence of events in the book adapted to the dot, albeit in a much more condensed and hurried pace. Considering the full length of the book is about 400 pages, and the made-for-TV movie is four hours long, that means for every hour he has to cover 100 pages. From this first part, I’d say he has done an admirable job.
Now to Gemma Arterton. I’ve enjoyed her role as Elizabeth Bennet in ITV’s Lost In Austen. So it is with high expectation that I come to watch Tess. If the screenplay is a light version, then Arterton’s Tess is aptly portrayed, for I have a feeling that she has turned it into a comic character at the beginning of the movie. But maybe that is to contrast her later portrait of lost innocence. Nevertheless, I feel there is something lacking, maybe the almost god-like purity and depth of love in Tess are qualities just too demanding for so young an actress to depict.
Hans Matheson’s Alec D’Urberville is much more attractive than the detestable Alec described in the book. Though the obvious villain, his dark and sensual appearance is symptomatic of a soul in turmoil. He has added complexity to his character that even sheds a bit of appeal. I look forward to his crucial role in the latter part of the story.
In contrast, Angel Clare is the innocent lover. His willing to challenge his strict Victorian upbringing in a clergy family for love of a milkmaid indicates his bold rejection of social norms and family expectations… up to this stage. Eddie Redmayne has delivered a convincing performance.
The character that really draws my attention, surprisingly, is Tess’ younger sister Liza-Lu, played by Jo Woodcock. For some reason that face has the look and intensity that’s so fitting in a film like this. And the three milkmaids that offer the much needed relief to the story, Marion, Retty and Izz, are well cast and portrayed. They play no minor roles in Tess’ life.
Finally, I must also mention the new host of Masterpiece Laura Linney. I admit, she’s more what I had in mind for the character of Tess while reading the book. Unfortunately that part is taken. Oh well, I’ll see her again next week, and in future Masterpiece presentations.
So, for a lighter and entertaining take on the tragic story of Tess, and to browse through the plot in a few visually appealing hours while sidestepping the somber philosophical view of Hardy’s, this BBC production offers a viable choice.
(Photos Source: bbc.co.uk)
~ ~ ½ Ripples (so far)