Did we like it?
Gemma Arterton sparkled as the tragic heroine, but the fact that Tess, aside from being a classic novel, is such a well-ploughed furrow for TV and film adaptations means that no matter how good it is (and it is pretty good) we are too familiar with the tale for it to breed anything other than a latent sense of apathy and inevitability.
What was good about it?
• Gemma Arterton captured the dreamy despondency of Tess as she strolled carefree about the rolling dales of Dorset, but was able to change her mien at a wink. As she danced with the interloping Angel at a little fayre, her eyes gripped him (and the audience) in a visual maw akin to a lion’s. It wasn’t so much lust or pleading that she wore but more an inscrutable gaze of control that could blossom into either.
• But her impetuousness and determination, which are the root of many of her problems, was also brought out expertly by the young actress. She learns how to speak posh so she won’t be embarrassed again by her local accent when in the presence of the elegant Alec D’Urberville, she embarks on a foolhardy escapade to fetch some bee hives her hopeless father is too drunk to get, which results in the family horse being killed in an accident.
• In some ways the plot in this first chapter is surgically divided up into a series of demands placed on Tess that she resists through her natural stubbornness until she is forced to comply whether it is through her mother’s blackmail to beg at the D’Urbervilles mansion or through Alec raping her. She only resists when the urbane Alec is still trying to seduce her without resorting to foul means, by walking to the mansion instead of beside him on his hurtling carriage.
• The unusually protracted scenes for a drama enabled us to drink in the piquant flavour of 19th-century Dorset. The village dance seems to go on for a little too long, but this in fact wraps you up in Hardy’s world, and sets the tone for the rest of the tale.
• This enabled the camera to also bathe in the luxuriant beauty of the fields and sea, even if the homes didn’t seem particularly lived-in, as if cramming Tess’s large family into a couple of rooms passed for an example of indigent living.
• The most erotic consumption of a strawberry in TV history, even if it did smack a little of a Cadbury’s Flake advert.
• While we weren’t convinced by Hans Matheson as Alec up until he assaults Tess, afterwards there is a compelling conflict in which he wrestles with his conscience over his actions but is unable to redeem himself because his habitual arrogance as a lord and master while Tess is merely a servant – but it’s the fact that Tess has affected him so that he feels any such contrition.
• Peculiarly, one area where knowledge of Tess’s future actually helped was to fabricate a fragile poignancy as she prepared to leave her rustic hovel for the splendour of Alec’s posh country manor. All the excitement and joy of Tess and her family was doomed, and this induced a pity and sympathy as you knew all her dreams would be crushed almost as soon as they had begun.
What was bad about it?
• Hans Matheson as Alec D’Urberville is adequate, but sadly this role needs a performance so much more than merely adequate. Alec is at the root of the problem of this adaptation simply because much of the audience will know what he ultimately does to Tess.
• For this reason, in their early, somewhat flirtatious exchanges, he needs to exude a charisma that can make you blank out his future misdeed, even egging him on in his forlorn pursuit. But Matheson doesn’t achieve this – every time he smiles at Tess, or lightly chides her, we don’t see the nervous advances of a coy lord, we can only see the devious gambit of a conniving ogre, and for this reason much of the potency of these fundamental scenes is stripped clean away.
• During the rape scene, the whole wooded hollow was flooded with a thick mist that symbolically sought to imagine Tess’s mind as she blanked the whole experience out as best she could, but ended up as a farcical homage to the Two Ronnies’ Phantom Raspberry Blower.