Sunday, January 4, 2009

'Tess of the D'Urbervilles' Premieres Tonight

'Tess of the D'Urbervilles' Premieres Tonight

Tess of the d'Urbervilles: A "Masterpiece" presentation. Starring Gemma Arterton and Eddie Redmayne. Directed by David Blair.Of all the great British Victorian novelists, Thomas Hardy may be the most daunting candidate for a film or television adaptation for the not very simple reason that, when reduced to plot alone, his novels can seem almost shallow and melodramatic.

In fact, they are anything but. His characterizations are superb, his portrayal of life in England's West Country extravagantly detailed and, above all, his daring examination of the moral and theological conflicts inherent in any society, but in particular, in Victorian England, made him the perfect author to push the British Isles toward a new century. "Jude the Obscure," his last great novel before he spent the final three decades of his life writing poetry, is a masterpiece, and two other late novels, "The Mayor of Casterbridge" and "Tess of the D'Urbervilles," aren't far behind.

What makes them great is Hardy's use of fatalism as a determining factor in his characters' lives - in a nutshell, people can't help themselves. All well and good, but how can a screenwriter translate that concept to a script without having to fall back on a wordy voiceover to keep the characters from seeming like a bunch of Victorian lemmings?

That's the problem David Nicholls faced in the latest adaptation of "Tess" for PBS' "Masterpiece" series. Eventually, some very good performances rescue the effort, but the first half of the film, airing Sunday night, focuses so heavily on plot, young Tess Durbeyfield comes off as a dishrag whose consistent failure to stand up for herself will make you think you're watching "Foolish Women, Foolish Choices," Victorian-style.


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