Was there ever a heroine so gloriously tragic as Tess Durbeyfield? The beleaguered and beloved title character of Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” remains so stalwart and true despite a life of perpetual betrayal that she makes Little Nell look like a character in “The Shield.”
“Violated by one man and forsaken by another” is how the good folks at PBS put it on their website promo for the new BBC adaptation that premieres Sunday night on “Masterpiece Classic,” and that’s not the half of it.
Used and abused by pretty much every man who meets her, the perilously lovely Tess was Hardy’s way of protesting the sexual double-standard of Victorian England, while, of course, reaping the benefit of it. Tess herself never considers protesting her own plight because she believes that, as a woman and therefore the natural embodiment of sexual temptation, she deserves it.
She is the sacrifice that brings about revolution, rather than the revolution itself.
As those who have read the book or seen any of the film adaptations know, “Tess” is not for the weak of heart. It is, in virtually any incarnation, what one might call a sobfest. With a four-hour run time, a lead actress who never looks as lovely as when she is blinking back tears and camera work that continually offers gorgeous vistas you know will only turn eventually to ash, this BBC version should be approached with caution.
Do not, for instance, watch it, as this reviewer did, all in one go, unless you have enough vacation accumulated to take to your swooning couch for a few days, waving away all offers of aid from family and friends, swathed in romantic misery, nasal congestion and the softest blankie you can find.
We meet Tess (Gemma Arterton) in virginal white as she and her friends greet spring with a traditional outdoor dance. Lovely beyond all reckoning, she catches the eye of Angel Clare (Eddie Redmayne), who ditches his snobby brothers to join in the festivities. Alas, her joy is to be short-lived; in a chance meeting, the local parson has called her father “Sir John,” explaining that the poor and rather dissolute Durbeyfields are actually descendants of the noble D’Urbervilles.
Tess’ parents urge her to take her pretty face to the local branch of the family. Proud girl, she refuses -- that is until being involved in an accident that kills the family horse. Off she goes to the manor house, where she meets Alec D’Urberville (Hans Matheson), one of literature’s most villainous libertines.
He advances, she repels, until one night, on the way home from a village fete, Alec rescues Tess from a jealous attack by her fellow farmworkers, only to force himself upon her in the mist-filled woods.
In the book, this act, which caused Hardy to be censored and then to launch an anti-censorship campaign, is fairly ambiguous -- one does not know if Tess has been raped or, worn down by Alec’s advances and the strangeness of the woods, seduced. As written here by David Nicholls and directed by David Blair, it is very clearly rape. Battered and bruised, Tess makes her way back to the house and flees almost at once.
There is a child, who dies, and what joy Tess may find in life -- the friends she subsequently makes as a milkmaid, the love of the gentle but self-satisfied Angel -- is all just a cruel buildup to more betrayal, heartache and hardship. Through love, loss and murder, Tess never loses her trusting nature or her ability to love, and that is both her comfort and her curse.
After a rocky beginning, Arterton is a marvelous Tess, which is good considering the film pretty much lives or dies with her performance. Despite the years that lie between her and Hardy, years that have both liberated and denigrated the sort of courageous victim Tess stood for, the young actress stands tall behind her flying hair and hurt-widened eyes and forces us to connect with the conviction behind Tess’ submissiveness.
(It will be interesting to see what younger generations make of Tess, either on the page or on the screen. The modern sensibility, and patience, is stretched at times by this version -- yes we can understand the social limitations of the time, but is Tess’ perpetual vulnerability a tribute or the ultimate betrayal?)
Director Blair, meanwhile, makes full and gorgeous use of Hardy’s depiction of Tess as Earth Goddess, a stand-in for pre-Industrial Age England, and we are treated to sweeping vistas of hill and dale, woods and fells, and, of course, in the climactic scene, an eerie Stonehenge.
In one scene, Tess, having left the grave of her infant and, she hopes, the past behind her, sets out to find work where no one knows her. Pale and drawn by her grief, she stands on the top of a green hill and, as the sun drenches the land, she looks at the verdant scene before her and the viewer can feel her heart lift. She is a young woman still, and there is such beauty in the world to balance the pain.
For those who know what awaits her, it is a bittersweet moment. But without joy, there is no tragedy, and without such visceral visual beauty, there is no “Tess.”
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)