Tess (film)

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Original theatrical release film poster
Directed by Roman Polanski
Produced by Claude Berri
Written by Gerard Brach
John Brownjohn
Roman Polanski
Based on Tess of the d'Urbervilles 
by Thomas Hardy
Starring Nastassja Kinski
Peter Firth
Leigh Lawson
Music by Philippe Sarde
Cinematography Ghislain Cloquet
Geoffrey Unsworth
Edited by Alastair McIntyre
Tom Priestly
Renn Productions
Timothy Burrill Productions
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release dates
  • 31 October 1979 (1979-10-31) (France)
  • 12 December 1980 (1980-12-12) (USA)
  • 9 April 1981 (1981-04-09) (UK)
Running time
186 min
Country France
United Kingdom
Language English
Budget $12 million (est.)
Box office $20.1 million

Tess is a 1979 drama film directed by Roman Polanski, an adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 1891 novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles.[1] It tells the story of a country girl descended from a noble line who, when she makes contact with the apparent head of the family, is seduced and left pregnant. After her baby dies, she meets a man who abandons her on their wedding night when she confesses her past. Desperate, she returns to her seducer and murders him. The screenplay was written by Gérard Brach, John Brownjohn, and Roman Polanski. The film won three Academy Award Oscars out of a total of six Oscar nominations.


The story takes place in Thomas Hardy's Wessex during the Victorian period.

Its events are set in motion when a clergyman, Parson Tringham, has a conversation with a simple farmer, John Durbeyfield. Tringham is a local historian; in the course of his research, he has discovered that the "Durbeyfields" are descended from the d'Urbervilles, a noble family whose lineage extends to the time of William the Conqueror. It is useless knowledge, as the family lost its land and prestige when the male heirs died out. The parson thinks Durbeyfield might like to know his origins as a passing historical curiosity.

Durbeyfield immediately becomes fixated upon the idea of regaining his lost nobility, and using it to somehow better his family's fortunes. To this end, he sends his daughter Tess to seek employment with a family named d'Urberville living in a nearby manor house. Alec d'Urberville is delighted to meet his beautiful cousin, and he tries to seduce her with strawberries and roses. But Alec is no relation to Tess; he has gotten his illustrious name and coat of arms by purchasing them. Alec falls in love with Tess and eventually rapes her.

She returns home pregnant, but the baby is born sickly and dies. Some time later, Tess goes to a dairy farm and begins work as a milkmaid. She meets her true love: Angel Clare, an aspiring young farmer from a respectable family. He believes Tess to be an unspoiled country girl, and completely innocent. They fall in love, but Tess does not confess her previous relationship with Alec until their wedding night. Disillusioned, Angel rejects her.

Deserted by her husband, Tess meets Alec d'Urberville again. At first, she angrily rebuffs his advances. But after her father's death, the Durbeyfield family falls upon desperately hard times, facing starvation, eviction and homelessness. Tess is forced to resume her relationship with Alec, becoming his mistress in order to support her mother and siblings.

Shortly afterwards, Angel Clare returns from travelling abroad. A disastrous missionary tour in Brazil has ruined his health. Humbled, and having had plenty of time to think, he feels remorse for his treatment of Tess. He succeeds in tracking her down but leaves heartbroken when he finds her living with Alec. Tess realizes that going back to Alec has ruined her chances of happiness with Angel, and murders Alec.

Running away to find Angel, Tess is reconciled with him; he can finally accept and embrace her as his wife without passing moral judgment on her actions. They consummate their marriage, spending two nights of happiness together on the run from the law before Tess is captured sleeping at Stonehenge. An ending summary tells that she is convicted and hanged for murder.



Polanski was inspired to make the film by his wife Sharon Tate, who gave him a copy of Tess of the d'Urbervilles. She said it would make a great film and expressed interest in playing the part of Tess. It was the last time Polanski saw her, as he was departing for Europe and she was murdered by The Manson Family while he was away. The film is dedicated to her.

Polanski wrote the screenplay in French with his usual collaborator Gérard Brach, then it was translated and expanded by John Brownjohn. The story line largely follows that of the book, although the role of the sexual predator Alec d'Urberville is toned down.[2]

Costumes for the film were designed by Anthony Powell. He received his third Academy Award for this work.

Set in Dorset, England, the film was shot at various locations in France : first of all Normandy (Cotentin, la Hague : Omonville-la-Rogue, Éculleville, Sainte-Croix-Hague, le Vast, Bricquebec and Saint-Jacques-de-Néhou), then in Brittany (Locronan, le Leslay) and Nord-Pas-de-Calais (Condette). Polanski was living in Europe as he was wanted as a fugitive after conviction for sex with an underage girl in the United States.[3] He had fled before sentencing and could have been extradited to the US from the United Kingdom.

Polanski intended the film to reflect an ancient peasant culture, which he had seen in Poland during World War II after fleeing the Kraków ghetto. The scenes also refer to the genre painting of the French artists, Georges de La Tour and Gustave Courbet, of the 17th and 19th centuries, respectively.[2] Andrew Pulver of The Guardian has compared this element of the film to Terence Malick's evocation of American agricultural work in his Days of Heaven.[2]

During the third month of shooting, on 28 October 1978, the cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth died of a heart attack. Most of the scenes he had shot were exteriors that occur in the first half of the film. Ghislain Cloquet shot the remainder of the film, including most of the interior scenes. Both Unsworth and Cloquet were nominated and won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Cloquet alone was nominated for the César Award for Cinematography, which he won.


The original musical score was composed by Philippe Sarde. The melody played by the character Clare on a recorder is a popular Polish folk song, "Laura i Filon".

Alternate versions[edit]

The film premiered in France in 1979 at a length of 186 minutes. Polanski writes in his autobiography that he felt that cut was incomplete, rushed to meet the release date. The film premiered in 1980 in the US at a re-edited length of 170 minutes.[4] Later overseas releases of the film theatrically and on home video ran as little as 136 minutes. The 170 minute US cut is Polanski's approved version of the film.[5] This version was recently restored in 4K from the original negative under Polanski's supervision and he attended its premiere at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.[6]


Tess was released in theaters in the United States on 12 December 1980. During its entire theatrical run, the film grossed little over $20 million in the United States ($60 million in 2014 dollars), which made it 33rd highest grossing film of 1980.[7]

Critical Reception[edit]

In a review in The New York Times, Janet Maslin described Tess as "a lovely, lyrical, unexpectedly delicate movie".[8] It’s one of Polanski’s rare love stories, and one of his most highly acclaimed works.[9] Tess received positive reviews from critics. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film an 85% "fresh" rating based on 20 reviews.


Tess was nominated for six awards, including Best Picture, at the 53rd Academy Awards and won three.[10] It was also nominated for four Golden Globe Awards (winning two), three British Academy Film Awards (winning one) and six César Awards (winning three).

Award Category Winner(s) and nominee(s) Outcome
53rd Academy Awards Best Picture Claude Berri Nominated
Best Director Roman Polanski Nominated
Best Original Score Philippe Sarde Nominated
Best Art Direction Pierre Guffroy and Jack Stephens Won
Best Cinematography Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghislain Cloquet Won
Best Costume Design Anthony Powell Won
35th BAFTA Film Awards Best Cinematography Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghislain Cloquet Won
Best Production Design Pierre Guffroy Nominated
Best Costume Design Anthony Powell Nominated
5th César Awards Best Film Roman Polanski Won
Best Director Roman Polanski Won
Best Cinematography Ghislain Cloquet Won
Best Actress Nastassja Kinski Nominated
Best Production Design Pierre Guffroy Nominated
Best Music Written for a Film Philippe Sarde Nominated
38th Golden Globe Awards Best Director – Motion Picture Roman Polanski Nominated
Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama Nastassja Kinski Nominated
Best Foreign Film France Won
New Star of the Year – Female Nastassja Kinski Won


  1. ^ Variety film review; 7 November 1979.
  2. ^ a b c Andrew Pulver (26 March 2005). "Girl, interrupted; Roman Polanski's Tess (1979)". The Guardian. Retrieved 23 August 2013. 
  3. ^ Janet Maslin, "Once Called Victim, She Forgives but Can't Forget", New York Times, 2 September 2013
  4. ^ http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=EE05E7DF173DE777BC4A52DFB467838B699EDE
  5. ^ https://www.criterion.com/films/28594-tess
  6. ^ http://www.festival-cannes.fr/en/theDailyArticle/59288.html
  7. ^ "Tess (1980)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 30 August 2014. 
  8. ^ Janet Maslin (12 December 1980). "Tess (1979)". The New York Times. Retrieved 4 September 2013. 
  9. ^ Presentation A film and its era : Tess, by Roman Polanski on Eurochannel
  10. ^ "NY Times: Tess". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-12-31. 

External links[edit]