(COLUMBIA HOME ENTERTAINMENT)
Decades upon decades of failed efforts to bring the works of Thomas Hardy to the screen, such as John Schlesinger's bloated and boring FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD, made it painfully clear to all who witnessed these disasters that the novels of Hardy, much like those of F. Scott Fitzgerald, could simply not be translated successfully to the silver screen. That is, until Roman Polanski miraculously proved otherwise with his spectacularly successful and jubilantly cinematic adaptation of Hardy's 1891 literary masterwork TESS OF THE d'URBERVILLES.
It's clear from the very first frame of TESS that this was a labor of love for everyone fortunate enough to be involved with it, as the level of meticulous perfection painstakingly and lovingly achieved by all concerned is evident down to the smallest detail during its mammoth, but entirely essential 172 minute running time, which translates this hitherto-thought "unfilmable" tragic tale of a poor but exceptionally beautiful farm girl's struggle for happiness to motion picture terms with such amazing fidelity, taste, and delicacy that it boggles the mind.
When perfection of such a prodigious nature is achieved it's difficult to know where to start when passing out kudos, but let's start with the Academy Award-winning cinemaphotography of Geoffrey Unsworth (who tragically died during production) and Ghislain Cloquet, which makes each and every frame look like a great painting, all the while imbuing the film with a trance-like quality that is nothing less than mesmerizing, an effect equalled by Philippe Sarde's rapturously romantic and melodic score. The screenplay of Polanski, Gerard Brach and John Brownjohn fills in the blanks inherent in Hardy's novel with uncommon taste and discretion, and the casting, down to the smallest bit, is perfection personified. Polanski had originally envisioned the title role for his late wife, Sharon Tate, but, as I've seen most of Tate's previous performances, which were primarily ornamental, I've come to the conclusion that her portrayal of Tess might have had the same detrimentally crippling effect on this project, and indeed Polanski's career, as Cybill Shepard's hollow performance had on Peter Bogdanovich's disastrous adaptation of Henry James' DAISY MILLER. In any case, Natassja Kinski's appearance and portrayal is of such a transcendentally luminous nature that it's immediately apparent that, had she been around during cinema's Golden Age, she would have been a star to rival Ingrid Bergman.
Clearly, though, the lion's share of praise must go to director Polanski, who completely and with dazzling success , subverts the violently neurotic aspects that dominated most of his previous efforts. Example: in most of his films prior to TESS, such as KNIFE IN THE WATER, REPULSION, ROSEMARY'S BABY, CHINATOWN etc, a fascination with sharp objects and the destruction they could cause was clearly and continuously evident and even exploited to a certain degree. When a central character is knifed to death in TESS, however, Polanski goes to great pains to make sure that it happens offscreen, so as not to disrupt the mood he has so delicately and elaborately established here. This is film direction of the highest order, and TESS may just be the finest transference of a classic novel to the screen ever.
Columbia Home Entertainment (by way of apologizing for the pan-and-scan monstrosity that visually desecrated their recent and unfortunate release of CASTLE KEEP?) has gratifyingly released TESS in a very good Panavision 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that marks the first time it's been presented in its original aspect ratio in 25 years. Though some overscan, edge enhancement and occasional redness of skin tones is sporadically visible this is nevertheless a transfer to be grateful for, and the Dolby Stereo, while primarily front-based, is better than adequate, though possibly not as directionally powerful as on the old pan-and-scan laserdisc.
While DVD CLASSICS CORNER almost never comments on special features, we cannot end this review without noting that Columbia, usually so stingy when it comes to supplying any extras at all on their catalog releases, has paid their respects to this great film by including no less than 70 minutes of behind the scenes featurettes that are not mere "puff pieces" but genuinely informative new material that graphically illustrates the fanatical degree of commitment, passion, and loving care that all responsible contributed to this uncommonly excellent production.