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Film Review: Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1998)


Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles has been loved, praised, and studied by many for more than a century since its publication in 1891. However, given its reputation, I was quite surprised to find myself rather disappointed after reading it for the first time not too long ago. Being a fan of book-to-film adaptations though, I went in search of something suitable that might, if I crossed my fingers tightly enough, restore my faith in the story. Enter: Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1998).

The film is true enough to the novel itself. Young Tess Durbeyfield (Justine Waddell) discovers early on her family’s connection with the wealthier, more successful D’Urbevilles of days gone by. Her story is full of hope and possibility of a brighter future, and there is no telling where her tale might end up.
But then everything Tess knows changes around her, and she finds herself at the centre of various difficult situations. The middle of the three-hour film, unlike the novel itself, finally begins to pick up pace. Her relationship with Angel Clare (Oliver Milburn) develops, but Tess’s history with Alec D’Urberville (Jason Flemyng), following one episode that sullied her purity, threatens to ruin the life she had managed to make for herself. It seems, for Tess, that the past will never rest until it has triumphed over her happiness.
I must admit that the ending of the novel was quite enjoyable, if surprising, and thankfully this was all the more powerful in the film. Throughout the duration of the adaptation, Tess really grows as a woman, her character developing appealingly until her most drastic, and indeed climatic, action. She is likeable, a little relatable, and, perhaps most importantly for a film of this period, completely tolerable. At least with the adaptation in mind, it was worth sitting through to (re)discover the ending.

Director Ian Sharp has interpreted the novel beautifully by extracting the more enjoyable elements and placing emphasis on scenes more fascinating than those generally representative of late nineteenth-century normality. The costumes are pretty, the music is mellow, and the narrative develops at a kindly pace. Whatever you think about Thomas Hardy’s novel, the 1998 Tess of the D’Urbervilles is one to watch.

Written by Amy McLean

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