Roman Polanski's 1979 adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles is an intimate epic, a story peppered with melodramatic twists of fate but presented on a distinctly human scale. The film is also a wonderful showcase for Nastassja Kinski as Tess. Despite being seventeen years old, the actress believably takes her character from a skittish school girl in the early scenes to a hardened, disenchanted woman by the end. While her working class British accent may come and go, Kinski's open and expressive face coupled with her total embodiment of the character makes for a mesmerizing performance. Polanski, too, tones down his idiosyncrasies to keep the focus on his late 19th-century source material and his star.
Tess's troubles begin when her dad, Jack Durbeyfield (John Collin), finds out that their impoverished family is actually descended from a noble bloodline, the D'Urbervilles. It turns out that there is a wealthy Lady D'Urberville in another town. Figuring she must be a distant relation, Tess's folks decide to send their daughter to the old woman to see if she can't provide them some familial financial assistance. But Tess doesn't meet the Lady on her visit. Instead, she meets her "cousin" (more on that later) Alec, played by Leigh Lawson as the perfect dapper villain. He's suave and worldly, but with an unmistakable undercurrent of nouveau riche brattiness. Soon the family receives a letter asking that Tess work on the D'Urberville's poultry farm. The letter claims she made a good impression on Lady D'Urberville -- whom she never even saw -- but obviously she made a good impression on Alec.
When she goes to work at the farm, she finds out that her employers are not D'Urbervilles by blood and, in fact, they bought the name. Any illusion of lingering old world nobility is quickly vanquished. Despite his duplicity, Alec treats his "relatives" well, sending money to the Durbeyfields and courting Tess sort of like a gentleman. That is, until he takes advantage of her in the woods and forces her to run away back to her family. Tess gives birth to Alec's child, but it dies young.
Hoping to start again, Tess goes to work at a dairy farm. There, she catches the eye of Angel Clare (Equus's Peter Firth), a handsome, young, well-to-do idealist who is literally Alec's opposite. Where Alec is a dark, nattily dressed fop, Angel is a fair-haired child of nature. Tess feels incredible joy when she is with Angel, but her past causes her to refuse his proposal of marriage. Finally, she writes him a letter, describing her history, and Angel still accepts her. Later -- once it is too late, in fact -- she realizes that Angel never got her letter. When she tells her husband on their wedding night of Alec and the baby, Angel's heart hardens and he cuts her loose.
Firth's transformation throughout the film is almost as astonishing as Kinski's. Imbued with an almost naive romantic spirit, his early scenes have an infectious vitality. After Angel has learned of Tess's past, Firth almost appears to be playing another character we have never seen before, certainly not the unfettered vessel of love from earlier. Once years pass and Angel comes to seek Tess's forgiveness, the idealistic fervor is back, even if Firth's character is distinctly worse for wear. Firth, like Kinski, pulls off these changes without any of it feeling false or contrived.
Tess won three well-deserved Academy Awards, for cinematography (Geoffrey Unsworth, who died mid-production, and Ghislain Cloquet), art direction/set decoration (Pierre Guffroy and Jack Stephens), and costume design (Antony Powell). The look of the film is not overtly pretty -- although the early pastoral scenes and the later scenes of Tess working in wheat fields both have a painterly quality akin to Days of Heaven. Yet the designers and technicians have created a distinctly lived-in world that enriches the film and elevates it beyond the trappings of stodgy period dramas.
Polanski was in love with Kinski at the time of filming, and it shows in the finished product, much like the way Godard focused on Myriem Roussel in Hail Mary. There's a delicacy to his handling of her. No matter the hardships which befall her character, Kinski never ends up looking bad. Not in a purely cosmetic, classic-Hollywood sense, where an actress's hair and make-up would remain intact in a hurricane, but in the sense that Polanski constantly presents Kinski's face in shots that let her spiritual purity radiate. While Tess's plot unfurls like a tragedy, Polanski and Kinski assure that it feels like a grand romance.