Tess (PG) -- At the Avalon 1, NTI Annandale and Roth's Seven Locks 2.

The moving pictures of working life in the 19th-century rural England that occupy much of the nearly-three-hour film "Tess are so ravishingly beautiful as to justify subordinating the theme of Thomas Hardy's novel to them.

This is cinematography at its best -- film used to present a view, in motion, of a reality that has been artistically ordered to reveal a greater-that-literal essence. The most obvious influence on the director, Roman Polanski, is Impressionist painting; but his eye is not imitative. This is no slide show of other artists' observations, nor an attempt at journalistic transmission that happens to reach into the past. The camera is used as a camera, to create its unique art form.

The harvesting of wheat, a frozen fiesl being probed for turnips, chicken-catching in a poultry yard, cows being milked, the clipping of a seaside hedge, the dripping of cheese in the making -- these old tasks of a bygone peasantry have been rendered as scenes of stunning beauty.

There is also incredible artistic success in a number of very small portraits of unimportant individuals. Patsy Smart as a housekeeper welcoming newlyweds, in a two-minute appearance with commonplace lines; Sylvia Coleridge, even more briefly, as a blind eccentric petting her chickens; Carolyn Pickles, Suzanna Hamilton and Caroline Embling as a trio of lovesick diarymaids -- each is so memorable as to make that treacherous old theatrical saw about there being no small parts, only small actors, take on fresh truth.

And what of the star, whose beauty is already renowned? Nastassia Kinski, the young beginning actress who plays Tess, has an uncanny resemblance to Ingrid Bergman. That beauty, bolstered by her being able to draw on the audience's store of emotions accumulated from Bergman's long career, is undoubtedly effective. But it is primarily she, with her limited abililty to act, who has kept the film's story on a prosiac, anecdotal level.

Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" was about a young girl whose early seduction by a casual roue so horrified her idealistic bridegroom that he deserted her after her wedding-night confession. So, faithfully, is the screenplay of "Tess." Some of the outlandish coincidences in the book, such as the seducer's being temporarily born again under the influence of Tess' father-in-law, are omitted, but with no detriment to the story line. The really outrageous touches, such as blood dripping through a ceiling or a fugitive's stumbling onto Stonehenge, are Hardy's.

The significant difference is that the story of Tess has, in the film, become simply that of one girl who had a rough time because of the double standard. The men in her life have victimized her through a rigid devotion to sexist conventions.

What Hardy had created, in his Tess, was a woman of such deep human passions that her own attempts to force herself into conventional patterns destroyed her. Neither her seducer nor her husband meant to be cruel, but their inclinations -- the one to be sexy, the other to be romantic -- were flimsy enough to fit easily into the prevailing social patterns. Neither could conceive that Tess, in contrast, actually had human feelings -- revulsion for one man and adoration of the other -- so violent that they could not be molded into that pattern, although she tried with equal passion to force them. Tess was not a social philosopher ahead of her time; when she burst uncontrollably from the restraints of society, it was a civilized law that she overthrew, not an unjust one. The man she murdered was no worse than , and not much different from, the one for whom she did it.

But that is a mighty theme in a novel that had no time to linger on the subtle beauties to be found in simple living.