After being impressed by Thomas Hardy in Under the Greenwood Tree, I saw another brilliant adaptation of his novel, Tess of the d'Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented. Even though this is a Victorian tragedy, I really loved watching the story unfold amidst breathtaking landscapes. The folks at BBC who produce such period dramas have a keen aesthetic sense, the setting is the most striking feature of this four part BBC undertaking.
Lush green fields as far as the eye can see, it's nature at her best in contrast to the nature of man at his worst. And this in a nutshell is the crux of this classic novel.
The story obviously revolves around a young, pious and naive girl; Tess Durbeyfield who faces cruelty and betrayal by the men in her life. Tess is first betrayed by her alcoholic irresponsible father whose main job seems to be producing kid after kid without the paternal instinct to hold on to a job long enough to provide for his large family. Tess has to bear the burden of his drunken stupor and this sets in motion a chain of events that wreck havoc on Tess's carefree and childlike nature. Tess then faces evil in its potent form at the hands of a distant wealthy cousin and the most heartbreaking betrayal of all comes from the man she loves. I would like nothing more than to tell you the story of Tess in detail, but the main reason I enjoyed this movie so much is because I had no idea what was happening next and I want you to feel the same. I cried with Tess and cursed the circumstances that tested her strength, patience and fortitude. I think this is the first Victorian period drama where I like the female protagonist more than any of the leading men. That's because Thomas Hardy probably intended for her to be this vulnerable, virtuous and fecund. In many ways Tess represents the earth, nature in all her stunning bountiful beauty. And we are like the men in the novel who do not protect and value her (the dad), the men who cruelly strip her defenseless to feed their own innate evil nature (the distant cousin) and the men who really love her but have been blinded by what society might think (the love of her life who puts Victorian notions of morality and sanctity above true love).
Even the landscapes on screen drive home the point that nature untouched by man is lush, radiant and magnificently beautiful. Towards the end, the Stonehenge is depicted in all her pagan mysterious beauty, and my heart skipped a beat. It's a place I long to visit... The history that surrounds those gigantic stone pillars is intriguing to say the least. The Stonehenge, a circular assembly of gigantic stone pillars has been around for centuries with many theories and assumptions about their origin running strife. Nobody really knows how these stones were erected. An amazing feat of strength, mechanical or otherwise would be required to transport the stone blocks and place them over the erected pillars. And in this case it is the otherwise which remains extremely fascinating, cause there is no way those ancient people handled heavy machinery of any kind. So the question still remains, how did they manage to transport the blocks across a wide expanse of land and how did they erect it and go about placing huge boulders over the erected pillars. Someday I shall see them in person... But seeing them here in the movie was such a thrill.
This movie is a visual treat, it invokes a deep protective feeling that makes you want to snatch Tess out of the hands of those worthless, deceitful and hypocritical people. You yearn to restore her dignity and self-worth, to instill that pure childlike nature of trusting, hoping and dreaming in a life... that is not bound by strict values of a Victorian morality, but a life that finds peace of mind, body and soul in recognising your own worth and realising that it wasn't you... that it has never been you, but the others who ought to change their cruel natures instead of breaking the beautiful wings, your mind soars on.
The beautiful and vulnerable Tess is played to perfection by Gemma Arterton, she brings Tess to life with her charm, innocence and spirit. Her perfect diction and lilting voice is captivating, makes you wish you could speak like her. The men don't require a mention, nobody stood out... or maybe they did with their pitiful natures that you tend to loathe them. In which case, the casting should be praised cause every single person nailed their part. Like nature, religion is also a major element here and not surprisingly, it too contributes to the misery and self-righteous judgement heaped on poor virtuous Tess. All in all an engrossing Victorian tragedy with many allegories that ring true in today's world.