Did Roman Polanski regard "Tess" as some kind of act of penance? Opening today at area theaters, this acclaimed and in some respects impressive adaptation of Thomas Hardy's great tragic novel, "Tess of the D'Urbervilles," certainly feels like a solemnly undertaken and executed artistic burden. Indeed, it's gravely reverential and picturesque to a grievous fault.
Watching this long, placid maddeningly subdued movie, you can't help wondering what became of Hardy's stark chronicle of crimes of passion.
Tess Durbeyfield, perhaps the most affecting "fallen woman" and vessel of wrath in English fiction, is a beautiful, victimized country girl eventually driven to murder by the shame and despair that accumulate after betrayals at the hands of her seducer, a rakish young squire and distant relation named Alec D'Urberville, and her true love, the high-minded but cruelly priggish clergyman's son Angel Clare, who rejects her when she opens her troubled heart to him on their honeymoon.
The outline of this triangle remains, vaguely discernible through Polanski's lingering, serenely pretty imagery (the cinematography was supervised by Geoffrey Unsworth, who died during the production, and Ghislain Cloquet, both exceptional talents) and standoffish, anticlimactic method of storytelling. What one misses is an adaptation truer to the spirit than the letter of the text.
The film is a triumph of externals. For peerless example, the rural Dorsetshire setting has been splendidly re-created by production designer Pierre Guffroy on lovely locations in Normandy and Brittany.
In a similar respect, great care has been taken with the superficial aspects of Nastassia Kinski's fundamentally inadequate performance as Tess. Kinski has been schooled in a lilting Dorset accent that could not have been easy to master. In fact, it still sounds as if it belonged to the time and the place but not necessarily the actress herself. Much more attractive than she was as the slutty teen in "Stay as You Are," Kinski has been groomed and shot to take pleasing advantage of her resemblance to the young Ingrid Bergman.
But the turbulent emotional reality of Tess remains muted and incomprehensible. One of the reasons the conflicts in the story fail to come alive is that Kinski seems incapable of differentiating between the way Tess acts with Leigh Lawson as Alec, the man she despises, and the way she acts with Peter Firth as Angel, the man she cherishes. Both actors seem astute choices, but their performances need a boldly contrasting response from the actress. Of course, Kinski is still a kid and may ultimately acquire an ardor and technique that match or surpass Bergman's. The immediate, inescapable disappointment is that she wasn't ready for Tess at the age of 17. i
One is left with a tragic story systematically purged of passion. But what's the point of making or welcoming a movie version of "Tess" that fails to wipe you out? Polanski doesn't even try for an emotional wipeout. If there were ever a story waiting to evoke pity and terror and to profit from the most profound impressionistic and melodramatic properties of the film medium, this is it. Now it's a lost opportunity at greatness.
Polanski was actually closer to the vision of Hardy in many of his earlier movies. "Knife in the Water" evoked the appropriate sexual tension, "Repulsion" the buildup of hysteric, murderous impulses, and "Chinatown" the ominous atmosphere of mystery and concealment that is shattered by the heroine's revelation of a haunted, victimized girlhood. Indeed, if you could transpose the mood of "Chinatown" along with Bergman's Maria in "For Whom the Bell Tolls," you might have a reasonable facsimile of "Tess of the D'Urbervilles."
The impacts Hardy built into the rambling but rugged dramatic structure of "Tess" are repeatedly muffled or omitted. Readers may sense this very early because of the omission of the shocking foreshadowing episode in which Tess and her young brother, driving to market in the early morning to make a delivery for their dissolute peasant dad, collide with a swift wagon and lose their horse, killed by a broken shaft that is driver through his breast. In the book it's the first horrifying link in the chain of misfortune that haunts and destroys the heroine. It's also a typical example of the kind of fateful occurrence that Virginia Wolf associated with Hardy's genius: "With a sudden quickening of power," she wrote in an appreciation soon after his death, "which we cannot foretell . . . a single scene breaks off from the rest. . . . Vivid to the eye, but not to the eye alone, for every sense participates, such scenes dawn upon us and their splendour remains. But the power goes as it comes. The moment of vision is succeeded by long stretches of plain daylight, nor can we believe that any craft or skill could have caught the wild power and turned it to a better use."
Even when Polanski includes those peculiar "moments of vision" -- Tess christening her doomed infant child "Sorrow" or pleading with Angel or rising in fury againt Alec -- the terror is minimized by the dirctor's detachment or the star's acting deficiencies. Polanski's "Tess" is almost a pageant of "long stretches of plain daylight," Hardy without the quickening apprehension and ferocity