Dear Readers,

I now consider this blog to be my Juvenelia. Have fun perusing the archives, and find me at my new haunt, here.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Tess, oh, Tess

So I have to admit that I was initially reluctant to get sucked in by the Masterpiece Classic "Tess," mostly because I knew it would leave me an emotional wreck, a pale shadow of my former self. I would be left bereaved and hopeless, as any significant amount of time spent with Thomas Hardy inevitably must leave one.

But I was told it was a really excellent adaptation, and so I dipped in. I have to say I'm surprised the NY Times gave it such a negative review. I thought it was a truly fantastic viewing experience--far, far, better than the dreck that was the first two weeks of last year's Jane Austen Season (seriously, ITV, WHY DID YOU DO THAT?). I thought that Gemma Arterton, who played Tess, anchored it with an astonishing performance. Her Tess is so believable, and the fatal mistakes she makes really appeared to come out of the traits of a coherent, whole, true character just as I imagine Hardy intended. This made her inevitable march towards Doom less unbearable because I felt less manipulated by the author and filmmakers than I expected to be.

The haunting music and the gorgeous scenery all made the bittersweet experience of watching poor Tess nearly escape her fall from grace more acute. Needless to say, the ending of the whole thing, a good many twists and turns later, left me quite insensible with grief for a few minutes.

But "Tess" is more than a tragedy based on a character's flaws: it's a screed against the sexual mores and misogyny of its time. Despite my recent feeling that I've OD'd on viewing everything through a feminist lens, "Tess" demands to be analyzed in a that context. Hardy's condemnation of the church's false morality is harsh but the movie makes it harsher ("I don't like your church! I don't like your God!" shouts Tess when the preacher refuses to give her illegitimate child a Christian burial. Here is the corresponding text.). Perhaps the most devastating moment of the movie was Angel's reaction when Tess tells him about her past. He loves her despite her poverty but he cannot get over those pesky social rules when it comes to her sexual history--and the filmmakers hammer home his churchy upbringing and the obsequious piety of all his family to underscore why it's so hard for him. When Angel then leaves Tess and she doesn't understand why, it's so deeply painful. Hardy shows us that good people are still bound by the chains of the unfair double-standard.

The biggest tangle in Tess and all novels of its ilk (Bovary, Anna Karenina, Scarlet Letter etc etc) written by men is though even though they expose the hypocrisies and horror of their societies' treatment of women, they always punish the heroine (okay, Hawthorne punished the dude in question more, but Hester couldn't take that damn letter off). This was inevitably done to shock the audience, to be publishable, and because i think it was beyond the scope of the authors' imaginations to believe that such acts could go unpunished in the societies they all railed against. But it still intrigues me today one to think of these female characters as human sacrifices--particularly Tess, who Hardy surrounds with pagan and primeval metaphors including a final night spent on a slab at Stonehenge--made by the authors in the service of justice for women.

Anyway, catch Tess online between now and Sunday, when "Wuthering Heights" takes over. It will be four hours you won't regret, even if it makes you a bit emotional. And if you've read the book and saw this version, I'd love to hear your thoughts on where the adaptation worked and where it didn't in terms of Hardy's vision.

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