tess durbervilles


For other uses, see Tess (disambiguation)

Tess is a 1979 English language romantic drama film directed by Roman Polanski, an adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 1891 novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles. It tells the story of a strong-willed, young (apparently) peasant girl who finds out she has title connections by way of her old aristocratic surname, who is seduced by her wealthy cousin, whose right to the family title may not be as strong as he claims. The screenplay was by Gérard Brach, John Brownjohn, and Roman Polanski.

Plot summary

The story takes place in rural Dorsetshire, England, during the Victorian period.

Its events are set in motion innocently enough when a clergyman, Parson Tringham, has a conversation with a simple farmer, John Durbeyfield. Tringham is a local historian; in the course of his research, he has discovered that the "Durbeyfields" are actually descended from the d'Urbervilles, a noble family whose lineage extends to the time of William the Conqueror. It is useless knowledge, really, as the family lost its land and prestige when the male heirs died out. The parson merely thinks Durbeyfield might like to know his origins as a passing historical curiosity.

Unfortunately, Durbeyfield immediately becomes fixated upon the idea of regaining his lost nobility, and using it to somehow better his family's fortunes. To this end, he sends his daughter Tess to seek employment with a family named d'Urberville living in a nearby manor house. Alec d'Urberville is delighted to meet his beautiful "cousin", and he seduces her with strawberries and roses. But Alec is no relation to Tess; he has gotten his illustrious name and coat of arms by purchasing them. Alec falls in love with Tess, eventually seduces/rapes her, and she leaves, pregnant; back at home, the baby is born sickly and dies.

Some time later, Tess goes to a dairy farm and begins work as a milkmaid. There she meets her true love: an aspiring young missionary from a respectable family, named Angel Clare. Angel believes Tess to be an unspoiled country girl, and completely innocent. They fall in love, but Tess does not guiltily confess her previous relationship with Alec until their wedding night. Disillusioned, Angel rejects her and Tess finds herself alone once again.

Deserted by her husband, Tess meets Alec d'Urberville again. At first, she angrily rebuffs his advances. But after her father's death, the Durbeyfield family falls upon desperately hard times, facing starvation, eviction and homelessness. Tess is forced to resume her torrid relationship with Alec, becoming his mistress in order to support her mother and siblings.

Shortly afterwards, Angel Clare returns from travelling abroad. A disastrous missionary tour in Brazil has ruined his health; humbled, and having had plenty of time to think, he is remorseful at his treatment of Tess. He succeeds in tracking her down -- but leaves heartbroken when he finds her cohabiting with Alec. Tess realizes that allowing Alec to manipulate and seduce her a second time has ruined her chances of happiness with Angel. She suffers a mental breakdown and murders Alec in a rage.

Running away to find Angel, Tess is reconciled with him; for he can finally accept and embrace her as his wife without passing moral judgment on her actions. They consummate their marriage, spending two nights of happiness together on the run from the law before Tess is captured sleeping at Stonehenge. The ending summary explains her conviction and being hanged for murder.


Polański made the film because the last time he saw his wife Sharon Tate alive (before she was murdered by Charles Manson's gang), she had given him a copy of Tess of the d'Urbervilles and said it would make a great film. The dedication at the opening of the film reads simply: "to Sharon".

Although the film is set in England, it was filmed in Quimper, Brittany, France. This is because Polanski was wanted for statutory rape charges in the United States, and he could have been extradited from the United Kingdom.

On 28 October 1978, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth died of a heart attack during the third week of shooting. Most of the scenes he shot were exteriors in the first half of the film and can be distinguished by their use of fog and slight diffusion. Ghislain Cloquet shot the remainder of the film including most of the interior scenes without diffusion. Rumour has it that among the scenes shot by Geoffrey Unsworth before his death were the foggy day for night seduction in the woods, the tent and the strawberries where Tess is in the d'Uberville mansion, the milking of the large cows, the girls seeing Angel at sunrise, and Angel carrying the girls over the stream . Unsworth (posthumously) and Cloquet were both named in the successful nomination for Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Cloquet alone was nominated, again successfully, for the César Award for Cinematography


The original musical score was composed by Philippe Sarde. The melody that Angel Clare, a Victorian period Englishman, plays on the recorder is in fact a popular Polish folk song, "Laura i Filon".

Main cast

Actor Role
Nastassja Kinski Tess Durbeyfield
Peter Firth Angel Clare
Leigh Lawson Alec Stokes-d'Urberville
John Collin John Durbeyfield
Rosemary Martin Mrs. Durbeyfield
Carolyn Pickles Miriam
Richard Pearson Vicar of Marlott
David Markham Reverend Clare
Pascale de Boysson Mrs. Clare
Suzanna Hamilton Izz Huett
Caroline Embling Retty
Tony Church Parson Tringham
Leslie Dunlop Girl in henhouse
Sylvia Coleridge Mrs. d'Urberville
Fred Bryant Dairyman Crick


Taglines used to advertise the film include:

  • "She was born into a world where they called it seduction, not rape. What she did would shatter that world forever."
  • "She was a poor man's daughter, an aristocrat's mistress, and a gentleman's wife. She was Tess, a victim of her own provocative beauty."


The film is rated PG in the United Kingdom for brief sexuality and thematic elements.


Awards and nominations


External links

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