Monday, September 15, 2008

BBC's Tess proves a turgid tale

As is increasingly the case in the field of text-to-screen adaptation, former adapted works often come to dominate and haunt their successors.

In the case of Thomas Hardy's many works (frequently adapted for film and TV), there have been two definitive Hardy adaptations which overshadow any subsequent attempts to capture the essence of Hardy's rustic melodramas. Both are films: Roman Polanski's 1979 version of Tess, starring a luminous Nastassja Kinski, and John Schlesinger's 1967 Far From the Madding Crowd, offering stellar performances from Julie Christie (Bathsheba Everdene), Alan Bates (Gabriel Oak), Terence Stamp (Sgt. Troy) and Peter Finch (Farmer Boldwood).

Both novels have also been adapted for TV - most recently, Tess in 1998 for ITV, starring Justine Waddell as the tragic heroine, and Far From the Madding Crowd, also in 1998, and again for ITV, with Paloma Baeza in the starring role, supported by Nathaniel Hawthorne as Oak and Jonathan Firth as Sgt. Troy.

The BBC has not been a notable Hardy-adaptor, hence last night's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, written by David Nichols and directed by David Blair, was a fairly unusual venture. The mini-series has been much-heralded, in part because of the latest Brit-IT girl of the silver screen and new Bond Girl, Gemma Arterton, taking on the central role.

In the circumstances, Gemma does fine - although her West country accent grates a little. She makes for a very pretty Tess with a delightful pout - one which even Keira Knightley would be proud of.

And the production is determinedly pretty too, with some lovely landscapes serving as a pleasant backdrop to the increasingly tragic events unfolding before us.

But I still can't shake off the nagging thought that this is BBC Adaptation-by-Numbers: albeit slick, smart, and well-presented.

There are a few pleasant touches. The episode opens and closes with country girls dancing in a circle, symbolising ancient fertility rites, celebrating youthful innocence. Tess is one of the dancers at the opening of the episode, but is excluded by its close, as she is now an unwed mother.

There is also a strong showing from Ian Puleston-Davies as Tess's father John, whose delusions regarding their heritage as descendants of the ancient landed family of the D'Urbervilles, prove to be the catalyst, launching Tess into her own personal tragedy.

We catch an early glimpse of Angel Clare (Eddie Redmayne), Tess's later love, and have prolonged exposure to the amoral cad Alec d'Urberville, played here with weary insouciance by Hans Matheson. Alec entices Tess to his country pile, ostensibly to help out his 'relation', but he has nefarious plans in store for her. He eventually rapes Tess, thus destroying her future.

In truth, however, what should be compelling, atmospheric and prescient, winds up a little perfunctory and disinterested.

Undoubtedly, the BBC is the driving force behind classic screen adaptation for TV. But in this instance, the ITV production of Tess, first broadcast in 1998, is the superior version. Of course, only one episode of the BBC's Tess has been aired, and there are three more episodes to persuade me otherwise.

Even so, I cannot imagine how the BBC's Tess will ever live up to Polanski's Tess, which is deserving of the accolades and fond remembrances lavished on it.

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