When Roman Polanski's The Pianist was released in 2002, a common line found among its praise was that it was his first great film in more than 20 years. While I wouldn't so quickly dismiss Death & the Maiden (1994), the cutoff point being referenced in the director's filmography was Tess (1979), adapted from Thomas Hardy's novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles. This great literary epic is now available on DVD. If you don't remember the basic plot from English class, Tess' poor drunk of a father learns generations back their family was wealthy and influential. He sends his eldest daughter to impose upon their relations...who it turns out aren't relations at all, but simply bought the name and coat of arms years ago. A rakish fellow who pretends to be her cousin immediately decides this innocent beauty will be his next conquest. This eventually leads to a rape, a pregnancy, a dead baby and a shunned Tess. She starts over again finding work on a farm, where the eldest son soon falls for her. She experiences true love and they marry, but when she confesses her past on their honeymoon he up and leaves her. Then in the last act things turn really dark and desperate.
Nastassja Kinski, the daughter of brilliant actor/nutball Klaus Kinski (Aguirre: The Wrath of God) is perfect in the title role. The then-19-year-old Nastassja Kinski is a natural and striking beauty, and though she has remarkably little dialogue for a nearly three-hour movie she conveys much in her performance, going from innocent hick to stunned outcast to the flush of romance to the pain of betrayal and finally to madness with seeming ease. Visually the film is exquisite, finally presented in all its widescreen glory--Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975) may be the only period piece with more impressive cinematography. The Oscar-winning lensing was by Geoffrey Unsworth (Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey), who died during filming and was replaced by Ghislain Cloquet (Woody Allen's Love & Death). The meticulous production design and costumes also rightly earned Academy Awards.
Tess is visually lush, but there is a pervasive and disturbing darkness in tone that sets it apart from most literary costume dramas, which tend more toward soap opera in corsets. The film is dedicated simply "To Sharon," of course being Roman's slain wife, Sharon Tate, who gave him Hardy's novel as a gift shortly before her death and prophesized he would one day make a great movie from it. Ten years after the horror of the Tate/LaBianca murders, Polanski made that vision his own.
The DVD includes an excellent 73-minute documentary with present-day interviews of cast and crew, including Polanski and Kinski.