Tess (1979)

Most costume dramas set themselves on the upper end of the economic poll. While certainly many of the leads of these stories are not well to do, they are generally comfortable in their living conditions. Tess, goes to the other end of the spectrum and follows a character on the bottom rung of society, tracing her journey through life, giving a far different perspective on life than most films set in this era.

Daughter of the local town drunk, Tess (Nastassja Kinski) is somewhat of an anomaly in her family. She has a good head on her and is gorgeous. When her father discovers that their family was once the noble Durbeyfields, he sends his daughter to the nearest family of Durbeyfields in the hopes that they will look on their family with pity and offer them money.

From there, Tess is placed into a world where she must navigate the complicated social world of being poor working class but brushing against the upper class. To gain the favor of the rich is to be spurned and ridiculed by her peers. Also, Tess’s fierce sense of honor and pride often causes her to shun certain situations where she might be seen as opportunistic.

This conflict leads Tess to add a dimension often missing from the costume dramas. While class is sometimes discussed as obstacles in these films, there are more light formalities in the way of respectable society. In Tess, these prove as true problems as Tess is put into situations where the rich are able to use and abuse her.

Instead of stopping at this point, the film tries to move through and beyond this system of oppression and pain. Tess is given an opportunity to accept and embrace her oppressor, but her silent rebellion of independence becomes the only way for her to continue with some shred of pride intact.

Shifting from the political to the personal, the film shows the emotional and relational scars of this oppression as Tess is given an opportunity at love when she meets the traveling Angel Clare (Peter Firth). These scars, along with the fear of rejection and scorn lead her to hesitate in accepting love extended to her. Can love truly overcome the darkness of her past or is she doomed to bear the weight of her indiscretions for life?

The universal feelings of shame and the indigence of pride play against religious themes. Tess’s struggle for romance with Angel, the son of a preacher, is played in conjunction with Angel dealing with his own family’s disappointment that he seeks a life of farm labor instead of following in the steps of his father, a priest, and pursuing a life of religious puritanism.

In comparison to many costume dramas, Tess delves into the grime and complexity of moral guilt, social shame, and economic oppression. These themes and ideas resonate today and add a timeless relevance to Tess. Life here is messy, bleak and still somehow beautiful in spite of it all, which makes it brand of hopefulness far more meaningful than whitewashed stories of balls and parties.

© 2015 James Blake Ewing