I've said it before and I'll say it again: if all you've ever read of Thomas Hardy is Jude the Obscure, you're missing out. I don't know why many high schools insist on choosing Jude over all of Hardy's other books for an introduction to his work, but it's a mistake. Hardy wrote 18 books and approximately all of them are better than Jude the Obscure.
That includes Tess of the D'Urbervilles, a book that catches almost as much flak as Jude the Obscure does for being an overwhelmingly negative, bleak bit of drudgery that sucks the life out of anyone who dares to go near it. And you know what? They're mostly right. It is a terrible story. I'm sure Hardy knew it was terrible. I have to believe, though, that he thought he was making a point by writing it (something I'm not sure I can say for Jude).
I found out from Miss Nemesis that PBS' Masterpiece Theatre recently featured a new miniseries adaptation of Tess of the D'Urbervilles. I finished watching it online (legitimately available at PBS.org) last night and could hardly go to sleep afterward, I was so moved. I dislike many elements of the plot of Tess as much as the next person, but for me, this was clearly a case of "hate the story, LOVE the adaptation."
I don't want to say too much about the (depressing beyond belief) plot, because I think that the less you know ahead of time, the more you will be affected by this movie. I'll say only that it is the story of Tess, a poor girl from a small village who leaves home to "claim kin" with a wealthy family. The rest of the movie deals with the consequences of that action, particularly the struggles of Tess to remain the "pure woman" of the book's original subtitle despite the best efforts of her rich relations, religious leaders, and even her own parents.
Thomas Hardy's books all have a certain sameness to them. Themes of purity, deception, and familial obligation are present in many of them. He is also a master of the love triangle, though he usually constructs his with a twist. Often, that twist is the passage of time - one woman has two lovers, but at different periods of her life. The crux of his stories is often that however hard the woman tries to keep them separate, those two different periods of time - and her two nonconcurrent lovers - inevitably find a way to intersect. For Tess, she is caught between the manipulative Alec D'Urberville and the wholesome Angel Clare.
Both men are misogynists (in my opinion), which the movie is not afraid to show. I loved how the movie made the supposed villain Alec D'Urberville shamelessly handsome and generally well mannered, while at the same time setting off Angel Clare's willfull blindness and startling hypocrisy. Throughout the movie, we are able to see each man through Tess' eyes, even when those eyes see a rapist as a potential husband and a soul mate as a vile betrayer.
The actress who plays Tess (Gemma Arterton) was apparently in the newest Bond movie, which I'm glad I didn't know until now because I think it would have distracted me. She does a fantastic job of portraying Tess, all the way from innocent girl to jaded mistress. I appreciated the way even her way of speaking changed as the movie progressed.
Angel Clare (Eddie Redmayne) was perfect for the character - so gentlemanly that we see how Tess could fall in love with him, and yet so morally...simple that we tell ourselves we should have known he'd betray her.
By far the best part of the movie was Alec D'Urberville. The actor, Hans Matheson, was the über good guy in Dr. Zhivago a few years back, but in this movie, he shows us that he could just as easily have played the smarmy Komarovsky. His performance alone convinced me that they need to start showing this movie in high school health classes to show women what a predator acts like, and what he will do to cultivate a victim (the social impact of what happened to Tess is also a great discussion point for that setting). In Alec's very first interaction with Tess, he tests her will with something as simple as a strawberry, and what he finds out from that encounter informs all the rest of his dealings with her. Matheson shows us that all of this is going on in Alec's mind without even saying a word about it.
The only weak points in the movie are the same weak points that are present in the book. The last 20 minutes or so of the movie are portrayed well, but the story is slightly ridiculous at that point so I suppose there wasn't much they could do with it. Really, Thomas Hardy, Stonehenge? The first time I read the book I could hardly believe he was serious.
But the last scenes! Oh, the last scenes. So good. So effective. So moving.
A few months ago, I wrote this about Dr. Zhivago, and I think the same applies to Tess of the D'Urbervilles:
When I realized that was the ending, I could hardly believe it. I had endured three [in Tess it's four] hours of non-stop bleakness for that?
But now I realize that I wouldn't have it any other way. Having Lara and Yuri reunited at the end wouldn't have redeemed either of them. More death, more misery, and more suffering is the only way to end a story that has been about death, misery, and suffering all along the way. To do it any other way would ruin it.
Yes, Tess is a story seemingly meant to instill despair and misery in the human soul. But at least this new adaptation does an inspiring job of it.