Tess of the D’Urbervilles (2008, TV): Part 2

tessThe “lite version” of Part 1 has turned into a heavy and somber continuation on PBS Masterpiece.  In this second and final part, screenwriter David Nicholls and director David Blair unleash the gloomy Hardy worldview unreservedly,  releasing the bleak and dismal elements that are almost too much for new year viewing.  The music has played a major and dramatic role in setting the tone and mood of the movie.  The cinematography too, in contrast to the lush green opening in the first part, has drawn us into a slough of mud, grey and black.  Hardy’s view of nature lamenting the tragic condition of his heroine is effectively conveyed, engrossing albeit a tad too melodramatic.

Kudos to David Nicholls for a meticulous job in adaptation.  He has kept the plot intact, for the most part faithful to Hardy’s book.  While a couple of incidents are left out, quite meaningful and symbolic too, but not to diminishing effects.  These include the sleepwalking episode, the Freudian slip of Angel’s innermost longing to love Tess despite all restraints.  The second being Tess’ mercy-killing of pheasants wounded by hunters, a sensitive portrayal of her own predicament.  However, Hardy would not have her killed off so easily.  Like the sadistic “President of the Immortals” in his view, Hardy the author wreaks havoc on his heroine, leading her into scenes after scenes of tragic events beyond her control.

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Tess can forgive Angel for his sexual sin, but he refuses to forgive her.  Actually, what sin has she committed if she was innocently violated by Alec D’Urberville when she was a young girl.  She loves Angel unconditionally, but his love for her is marred by constraints.  Later, she cannot avoid stalking by Alec, who keeps preying on her, and in her most needy and vulnerable, takes advantage of her again by manipulating her love for her family.  Whatever dignity she may have Tess ultimately sacrifices it for her beloved family.  But I admire Tess’  integrity, yes I like to see it as integrity, and not pride, that has sustained her until that very end when she finally has no choice but to yield to Alec’s sinister scheme.

It is for this reason that I find Gemma Arterton’s portrayal of Tess as just a proud and feisty gal to suit modern viewers incongruent with the book.  She may look innocent enough, but her performance at times is contrived and lacks the striving complexity required.  But her tears are effective and moving, I must say.  While Hans Metheson has delivered his diabolic role adequately, Eddie Redmayne as the losing lover at the end is a bit lacking.

And Angel, oh, what a tragic character.  The seemingly altruistic lover cannot stand the test against social mores.  In the book, the chapter describing the mutual confession of sins between the newlyweds is aptly entitled:  “The Woman Pays”.  What an irony of double standard!  This might well be the name of the novel.  While Hardy may have held an entangled and agnostic view of the transcendent, his social critique is incisive and spot-on.

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At long last, Tess and Angel can enjoy marital bliss, but only for a painful, fleeting moment.  Tess says in her anguish:  “It is too late”,  the four words that define the tragedy of her life.  As a young girl, she did not understand the meaning of Alec’s sinister advances until too late.  And now as a married woman, her husband has come to her rescue too late.  I learn from the end notes of my Penguin edition that the original title of the book was Too Late, Beloved! What a heart-wrenching story.

PBS has a link to an online interactive Q & A with screenwriter David Nicholls.  In there he  answers the many questions viewers have regarding the process of turning book into film. I have enjoyed Nicholls’ previous adaptation of Blake Morrison’s memoir into the movie “And When Did You Last See Your Father”, starring Colin Firth and Jim Broadbent, an excellent and sensitive film.  I look forward to seeing more of Nicholls’ work in the future.

~ ~ ½ Ripples

Click here to go back to Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Part 1.

*****

Tess of the D’Urbervilles (2008, TV): The Lite Version

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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.

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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.

angel-clareIn 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)

Click here to go to Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Part 2

*****


When Did You Last See Your Father?

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I have the chance to soak in the frenzy of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) these past few days in the big TO. The largest film fest in the world, this year TIFF offers over 300 films from 60 countries from September 6 to 15, a delectable smorgasbord for movie lovers . On Saturday, Sept. 8th at 7:00 pm, while the enthusiastic crowd gathered along the barricades outside the Elgin Theatre on Yonge Street, hoping to get a glimpse of Brad Pitt on the red carpet, I lined up patiently with a less boisterous group of ticket holders outside the same building an hour early to get into the Winter Garden Theatre for the premiere screening of When Did You Last See Your Father?

Based on the award-winning and highly acclaimed memoir written by British author Blake Morrison, WDYLSYF is a fine piece of artistry crafted by some of today’s top British talents. Director Anand Tucker’s work includes the Oscar nominated and BAFTA winning Hilary and Jackie (1998), and co-producing Girl With a Pearl Earring (2003), another Oscar nominee and numerous European film award winner. The stellar cast of WDYLSYF is led by Jim Broadbent and Colin Firth, playing father Arthur and son Blake Morrison, with strong supporting roles from Juliet Stevenson as the mother and newcomer Matthew Beard, who plays the teenage Blake.

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The words “A True Story” in the opening credits prepared the audience for something real and meaningful. We were led to explore a multi-layered and poignant story about a fragile father-son relationship that is brought to the forefront at the father’s imminent death from cancer. Jim Broadbrent could well deserve an acting nomination as the ailing father, headstrong, overbearing, and ever the victor in whatever circumstances, even in the face of terminal illness. Colin Firth aptly portrays the middle-aged Blake, already an acclaimed writer and poet, yet still waiting to hear from his father the two precious words he has longed for all his life: “well done”.

Intense but not draining, the director effectively sprinkles enough comic relief at the right moments to move the story along with poignancy but steers the viewers away from sentimentality. I always think that Colin Firth excels in subtle, understated acting, his every gaze speaks volume. Here again he has shown once more that he is a master of this craft.

However, I must admit that Matthew Beard, a first time film actor who plays the teenage Blake shines with his natural and superb performance, bringing out the love/hate sentiments he has harboured towards his father from the various situations he has been pushed into, such as the reluctant camping trip, the impromptu driving lesson, the numerous embarrassment and even public humiliation he has suffered from his father’s brash and insensitive comments…but above all, from the burden he has to bear as a witness to the wrongs of his own parent.

The restrained acting by the stellar cast effectively conveys the pathos and conflicting family relationships as well as the ambivalence of a son trying to come to terms with resentment towards a callous, egotistic, and dying father. Firth’s subtle characterization of the adult Blake poignantly portrays the crux of his torments. It is a painful relief at the end of the movie when he realizes that sometimes one has to resolve anger and disappointment on one’s own, unilaterally, including the most difficult discipline, forgiveness and the letting go. If the victim has forgiven, should the witness keeps on holding grudges? There’s no simple answer, and the film has successfully dealt with such conflicts through the multi-layered characterization and the reflective shots through mirrors in many scenes.

Filmed mostly on location in beautiful Derbyshire, England, the movie’s inspiring cinematography works like a soothing balm, together with the light-hearted and nostalgic childhood scenes, the film is an enjoyable visual treat. Again, such is the real portrayal of the issues we face, natural beauty can sometimes offset the darker side of human nature. Humour and pathos can co-exist.

A bonus in going to film festival screening is the chance to hear the makers of the movie reflect on their work. The audience was pleasantly surprised to see the director Anand Tucker and actor Jim Broadbent come on stage to answer questions after the movie. Listening to them, I felt that I’d only discovered the outer layer of a very complex and pleasurable artifact that I wanted to see the movie all over again.

And so I did two days later.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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To read my review of the book And When Did You Last See Your Father? Click here.