The BBC has given us another of their period costume dramas, almost institutions in themselves. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles is the latest to join the elite ranks of Pride and Prejudice and Bleak House.
However, Tess is not your average, cosy, costume drama that makes for light Sunday-evening viewing. It tells the story of Tess Durbeyfield, a country girl whose ancestors are the noble family of D’Urberville. Sent out by her mother to claim the family heritage, Tess falls victim to her cousin Alec’s lust for her. Now a spoiled woman, Tess is unable to make her true feelings known to the man she loves, Angel Clare, until she learns that he too is not quite so innocent. What could possibly go wrong?
Gemma Arterton was ideally cast as the naive, proud, unfortunate Tess. Her large, sad eyes were the perfect outlet through which Tess’ emotions were conveyed. Gavin and Stacey’s Ruth Jones was something of a revelation as Tess’ mother, even though she had already shown her diversity as an actress in a particularly haunting episode of Torchwood. Hans Matheson as Alec D’Urberville was the right mix of menace and vulnerability, but Eddie Redmayne’s Angel Clare did not quite make it clear why the girls love him.
A solitary, sad violin provided the basis of the soundtrack, however a scene where Tess confronts Alec about Angel was spoiled by music that was too loud and too dramatic. It almost seemed to be harking back to the music of classic romance or action movies. In contrast, the traditional country tunes sung by Tess and the girls while dancing or working, were bright, cheerful songs amid a bevy of depression.
The scenery, although pleasant enough, had the misfortune to be upstaged by the views shown in Britain From Above, shown just before Tess began. Only Stonehenge, without a main road, barrier, and tourists swarming around it, looked especially startling, and was arguably the star of the show – rather like This Is Spinal Tap, only without the hilarity. The fact that most of the focus was on the actors while a mist-shrouded Stonehenge made a silent backdrop of such subtlety for stones so large made the scene all the more eerie.
Shot under mostly grey or cloudy skies, this adaptation evokes the feel of the novel well, and is very faithful to the story. Given that almost the entire wardrobe was destroyed in a fire, everyone looks perfectly pretty or rightly ragged in their hurriedly thrown-together costumes; one would never know.
Told in four, one-hour slots, the length is just right. Not too rushed, yet not so long as to keep the viewer wrapped in a cocoon of sadness to the same extent as our poor heroine. While not as engaging as other BBC adaptations – the notion that the BBC could churn such things out in their sleep seems to have been tried and tested with Tess – , it is nonetheless a moving tale of hypocrisy that shows while people may not change through history, thankfully, society, culture, and attitudes do.