Movie Review: Masterpiece Theater’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”


Remember Oxford edition books from college?


When Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles was first published, readers debated whether or not the main protagonist, Tess Durbeyfield, was a “pure” woman.  Her purity was of great debate among friends at dinner parties (Laura Linney said before the film began on Masterpiece Theater).  Tess is a young, simple, and honest woman who endures several tragedies, but has a bit of happiness, too.  Though many evils befall her, she takes life into her own hands in the end.   




Tess (Gemma Arterton), a beautiful young girl in her teens, has a simple life in the countryside of Southern England.    Her father consoles himself with drink, and is often jobless.  Tess, who is hard-working and good in school, hopes to someday become a teacher.  Her mother has a big brood to raise, and feels that Tess should swallow her pride for the sake of the family.  So, Tess goes to work for her distant relations, the D’Urbervilles, on a big estate several miles from home. 


Her wealthy, older, crafty cousin Alec D’Urberville (Hans Matheson) is instantly struck by her beauty and simple ways.  Tess is given the job of “poultry manager” and her own little house to live in on the estate.  Her cousin gives her a lot of attention, gifts (such as a new dress), and promises to do something for her poor family.   Tess is unprotected and in danger, the viewer quickly learns.  Alec’s mother, a blind sickly old lady close to death, can’t protect Tess from her son’s advances.  She lets him run everything, even though she knows about his dissipated ways (drinking, gambling, and running after women). 




When they see the pair together in Alec’s carriage, Tess’ sister Liza Lu asks “Is that the man who will make Tess a lady?”  In Thomas Hardy’s mind, Tess is already a “lady.”   She has a lot of pride and (natural) honor- something that a man like Alec can never understand.  A girl, the former poultry manager, ran off before Tess arrived!  The other servants gossip and laugh about Tess.   The young housemaids are jealous because they no longer have their master’s attention.   




Alec “takes her by force” in the woods late one night.  She is bewildered, ashamed, and has no one to talk to about her situation.  (No one told her that such things could happen!)  Tess quickly returns to her family, has a baby boy, and deals with that baby’s death (as well as the disdain of her community). 


She appeals to the local pastor to allow her dead son, who she named Sorrow, to be buried “on consecrated ground.”   He refuses (of course) because the baby was born out of wedlock.  Tess is angry and hurt, feeling that the church is not doing the right thing.  She decides to seek out a new job.  You wonder if she’ll ever get a break!




Tess begins work as a dairy maid on a family-like farm peopled with a kind group of individuals.  She becomes friends with the other milkmaids, and catches the eye of a young gentleman, Angel Clare (Eddie Redmayne), who’s trianing to be a farmer alongside the others.  Slowly, Tess and Angel become good friends.  He is taken aback by her goodness.  Angel is a decent guy who loves working the land, though he is the son of a parson (and thus middle-class).  He doesn’t care for money or status, but highly values honesty. 


All the girls on the farm are in love with Angel, but he (noticeably) prefers Tess.  She is afraid to let herself be happy, but eventually admits that she’s deeply in love.  However, she feels she is “ruined” and “will never marry” someone so good like Angel.  What will happen next? 


Gemma Aterton does a terrific job showing the many sides to a “simple” girl; she is not only a victim, she has a lot of toughness.   How else would Tess have survived her life?  Hans Matheson, dark and a bit dangerous in appearance, makes Alec a complex, interesting villain.  He’s not always easy to figure out.  Eddie Redmayne goes through a wide range of emotions, and truly fits into his role of idealistic young man.  When Angel becomes disappointed in life, he does an even better job.   


This is a very effective film because it has these elements: a  very committed cast of characters (who are not well-known), fitting music and lighting (to set a mood Hardy could approve of), and appropriate costumes, scenery, and sets.   The film elaborates on the themes: innocence, honesty, shame, questioning of established religion, unconditional love, betrayal, and (eventual) forgiveness.  It’s true to Hardy- it’s dark, moody, and (sometimes) unexpected.  You will be quickly drawn into this film!  




Gemma Aterton is one of the newest Bond girls, believe it or not!  She can be seen in Quantum of Solace (opposite Daniel Craig).  




Hans Matheson can be seen in The Mists of Avalon (where he plays another villain) and the BBC version of Dr. Zhivago (opposite Keira Knightly). 




Eddie Redmayne, an actor fans of Brit films  may be familiar with, has been in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (with Cate Blanchett and Clive Owen), Elizabeth I (with Helen Mirren, Jeremy Irons, and Hugh Dancy), and  The Other Boleyn Girl (with Scarlett Johanssen, Natalie Portman, an Eric Bana).  Not bad for a guy who’s just 26!  


Links you may like: 


A photo of Thomas Hardy’s house, Max Gate:


More about this film:


More about actress Gemma Aterton:


A web site dedicated to actor Hans Matheson:


A web site dedicated to actor Eddie Redmayne:


1998 UK version (starring Justine Waddell)


The famed 1979 version- Tess (starring Nastassja Kinski); directed by Roman Polanski

One thought on “Movie Review: Masterpiece Theater’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”

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