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Tess: Special Edition

Pauline Kael once joked that "no one was able to balance wistful sentiment and corny humor the way director Frank Capra could. But if anyone else should learn to, kill them." That could also be said of the filmmaking duo Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. They are of a singular sensation, making very British, very dry adaptations of from the works of luminous literary figures such as E.M Forester — and if any other filmmaker tries to do what Merchant and Ivory do best, they should be taken out to the woodshed. Even so, it's a style that has been dabbled at by numerous talented directors with varying degrees of success. Of the better of these types would be Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence and Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility. But for the most part, epic costume dramas are long, languid, and dry as burnt toast. Such is the fate of Roman Polanski's adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 1891 novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles, which had its famous title truncated to the more manageable Tess (1979). Natassja Kinski stars as the eponymous character — of a poor upbringing, she visits possible relatives, the rich d'Urbervilles, hoping for some support and perhaps a job. But the family bought the title and is of no relation, while the household is headed by a blind elderly woman. Tess gets a job there just the same, but the reason for it is because she catches the eye of son Alec d'Urberville (Leigh Lawson). A rakish sort, Alec begins his attempted seduction almost immediately and finally forcibly gets his way with her, which leads to Tess leaving her position, and then a baby who dies shortly after birth. Tess finds a new job and falls in love with Angel (Peter Firth), and they agree to marry. But soon after their nuptials, Tess reveals her scandal and Angel cannot live with her for it, leading to even more strife. Running eight minutes shy of three hours, Tess lacks the normal pleasures of a Roman Polanski film: There's little black humor, and the wide open British skies lack Polanski's genius for claustrophobia. As it was Polanski's first film after fleeing the United States (to avoid serving time for statutory rape), perhaps he felt it best if he played it less kinky than normal. Or perhaps — since the picture is dedicated to his late wife Sharon Tate — he did it to pay his respects to a role she always wanted. That said, Polanski always has had a delicate touch with actresses, and Kinski is fine in her English-language debut. But one waits for the film to come to life. It does a bit in its final half hour, but by then it's already been suffocated by its own respectability. Columbia TriStar presents Tess in a good anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) and in Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. A special edition release, the supplements consist of three featurettes, "Tess: From Novel to Screen," (28:38), "Filming Tess" (26:10), and "Tess: The Experience" (19:38), which feature interviews with Polanski, Kinski, Leigh Lawson, Thomas Hardy scholar Michael Irvin, writer Claire Seymour, co-producer Timothy Burrill, producer Claude Berri, screenwriter John Brownjohn, casting director Mary Selway, costume designer Anthony Powell, production designer Pierre Guffroy, executive producer Pierre Grunstein, hairdresser Mac Ludovic Paris, chief electrician Jean-Claude Lebras, make-up artist Didier Lavergne, and assistant editor Herve De Luze. Also on board are bonus trailers, and the DVD's insert mentions a deluxe edition will be released with a copy of Hardy's novel, but offers no additional supplements. Keep-case.
—DSH



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