Among my endeavours this summer is to differentiate the group of films I call Austen films as a subgenre crossing other typologies; I'm also (as part of it) differentiating films from 18thC from films from 19thc Sources. I must do this first and then see where the Austen ones fit in.
So, over the past couple of weeks, I've returned to watching costume dramas set the era (historical) of adapted from novels of the 18th and 19th century. Partly I've been testing my theory, and have found that at least so far 18th century films repeatedly delve into sexuality for its own sake and present the issues of each in such a way that we delve deeply into the nature of people's psychologies interacting with the mores and issues of their particular social groups. This lends itself to abstract social issues like say slavery (as in Amazing Grace where the accent is on the individual's inner world). The 19th century films turn to social and familial pathologies, attempt a larger picture of society in which these pathologies are formed, and we see how the social roles imposed on people conflict with and/or sustain their deepest needs and desires.
This use of two kinds of period drama may be found in the 1979 Roman Polanski and Gerard Brach's Columbia and French-company produced Tess; David Blair and David Nicol's 2008 BBC Tess of the D"Urbervilles, and the 1997 BBC Jude directed by Michael Winterbottom, written by Hossein Amini. So much for the 19th century. For the 18th I rewatched Jeffrey Hatcher and Saul Dibbs's The Duchess out of Amandra Foreman's books -- and compared it as I went along with movies like Ettore Scola's 1982 La Nuit de Varennes (novel by Catherine Rihoit, screenplay reversing perspective to masculinist, Sergio Amidi), the BBC mini-series 1999 Aristocrats, written by Harriet O'Carroll, based on Stella Tillyard's marvelous group biography, directed by David Caffery.
This blog (1) will compare the first three (two Tesses and one Jude) and tomorrow (or 2, the next one) by contrast will center on The Duchess, whose themes of sexual renunciation and arranged marriages coheres with what we find in Austen's Sense and Sensibility (though not so much the Austen films -- which as I say differe); the third will be on the 1997 Tom Jones (which I love and will show has quite a woman-centered point of view now and again and a continuum of female types):
Angel Clare (Peter Finch) watching Tess (Nastassia Kinski) from afar, a typical long shot, framed, picturesque
Polanski's Tess was released to commercial theatres but is as long as any mini-series and could easily have been shown in three parts over three successive weeks the way many mini-series are aired. It's 190 minutes.
I found myself getting engaged in it slowly and it was interesting as a film too. First, it is very like other film adaptations of the 1970s; the themes and stance is that of D. H. Lawrence, and it closely resembled a movie made a couple of years before it, e..g, the 1977 Love for Lydia (source text H. E. Bates;s novel). A great deal of fuss was made at the time because it was Polanski's but in fact he imitates many of the genre's features at the time, including the nostalgic love for a beautiful unspoiled countryside, the wrong-headed worship of rank for itself, visits to the grand houses (decayed or in use) that upheld and symbolized this order; the critique of marrying for money, presentability, family aggrandizement &c&c.
Sadoff (in her mistitled Victorian Vogue -- it's actually based on Austen, Merchant-Ivory and horror movies) accuses this movie of being pretty. Yes and so are many of these film adaptations. It did differ from others and perhaps one could see Polanski's hand in the lack of slickness that characterizes sequences in say Charles Sturridge's famed 1981 Brideshead Revisited out of Evelyn Waugh (and other admired ones, Jewel in the Crown by Christopher Morahan and Giles Foster out of Paul Scott's Raj Quartet) . There's a quiet plainness to many of the scenes; no meretricious worship of the props outfits and glitter. It's understated as a film. The recreation of farm life was effective and seemed accurate (especially the hard work, and diary farm as such), but Stonehenge was too clearly a rebuilt fake. They couldn't skip it (a hingepoint in the novel, remembered when nothing else is) they must have felt and couldn't get permission to film there I suppose.
I also liked that Polanski did not make Alec D'Urberville (Leigh Lawson in the film) into a monster or mustache-twirling villain (as Hardy does), but an ordinary amoral man who nonetheless is willing or would have been to be decent (take care of her physically and provide money and place and clothes) to Tess and her family. He also did not present Angel Clare as justified considering his background the way Hardy does: unless we are to blame Tess for her adherence to this passionate attachment to Clare and dislike of sex outside marriage. That was there.
By contrast, Hardy's treatment of Angel Clare alerts every woman to what destroys her. It's fine for Clare to have had sex with someone it seems, but she is a polluted thing, not to be touched by him if she has. I loathed Hardy for his Clare, though I know Hardy also saw all that Clare stood for (religious hypocrisy) was also hated by Hardy (and was glad to see J. L. Carr did in his Month in the Country where he alludes to and imitates Hardy does not exonerate Clare). Peter Firth was given the role and it was written sympathetically (he later took Henry Tilney in the 1986 Maggie Wadey Northanger Abbey).
Now Polanski is not interested in these big social issues and that's his film's weakness, why he makes it pretty. It's a celebration and remembering of his wife, Sharon (horribly murdered). In this film we are to feel it's chance and nobody's fault or the complete irrationality of human arrangemetns that leads to society murdering Tess for murdering Alec. Perhaps this is how Polanski lives with what he has seen in the 20th century world. Need I add the rape is presented as forcible seduction?
The movie does alter the case by having Clare the kind of person who abjures ambition, see the hollowness of much social life, values kindness, the natural world, courtesy, and makes him deeply congenial with Tess. This is a strong underlying theme for all film adaptations of classic novels of this romantic type. On this basis while Alec is presented as shallow, a man alive to presentability, wanting to make Tess a sex object toy, a cynic (a no no on this film -- which is again odd as all I've read about Polanski suggests he is -- in fact closer to Alec than Clare).
I have not read Hardy's book in years and remember not liking it that much: yes the poetry of the landscape is great, but the refusal to allow Tess openly to have sexual desires, the melodrama and false presentation of Alec as stage villain marred the book for me. So this updating was an improvement, if not a very original one. A flaw was the actress who played Tess. She was Polanski's lover at the time (this seems a frequent relationship between film-maker and his central leading lady) and her acting is not that bad, but not up to the others who (several of them) are regularly BBC quality drama people, and one wondered what this most unEnglish woman -- this exotic Slavish beauty in her velvets when she had the chance at any -- was doing wandering about the southwestern English countryside, and thus taken up by the white English sensitive hero gentleman hero type:
Polanski's Tess and Angel Clare
2008 Tess of the D'Urbervilles
Alec (Hans Mathessen) reasoning withTess (Gemma Arterton)
Directed by David Blair, written by David Nicholls (probably related to Kate, Phoebe and Anthony, a BBC denizens and found in these dramas in different roles), produced by David Snodin (he did the brilliant 2007 traumatized Persuasion), this holds its own against Polanski's even if Polanski's is the more unified work of art. Polanski's seems (even at first viewing) more all of a piece, held together. It profits enormously from all the changes in computer technology, what can be shown on TV and films sexually and as to nitty gritty reality, and a post-20th century sensibility which swerves to give the characters a real alienation from wholesomeness as rank and power and social abilities.
The 2008 is also a transposition; thus far all the hinge points are followed: pastor who tells imbecilic father they are noble; imbecilic father tells desperate mother, Tess coerced into visiting her so-called relatives; also the circle dance early on where unknown to her she meets Clare and dances with him.has the advantage of greater frankness, more time (240 as opposed to 180 minutes -- Polanski's is the length of a 3 part mini-series), more capable minor actors all around (as did the 2004 Dr Zhivago by Davies over Lean's 1966 one). Anna Massey is just poignant yet obtuse and hopeless as someone to turn to as Alec D'Urbverville's mother for example.
But there is something more: it's less wistful, harder. It's not just that Tess is clearly raped -- for this film also misrepresents what sexual experience can be. Once Tess is raped in this film, she refuses to have anything to do with Alec; in the book that's not so at all, and in life that's often not so. A woman rarely gets pregnant after one tryst, especially if it's a rape, and that's what this film is reduced to showing: this old trope which is put before us on the expectation it exonerates the woman because forsooth she held out ever after; that's not real. Neither film shows what Hardy does then.
Alec is again softened. Played by Hans Matheson (Dr Zhivago himself and Marius in Les Miserables) he is played as really doing worse than he means; he'd like to do better but you see he has this mother who despises him and he can't help himself. I'm making fun and it comes out better than this, but Polanski's much less sentimentalized Alec is truer. No need to drag in family background to explain the shallowness of Polanski's Alec. Blair's Alec is not so much cynical as sceptical and disillusioned.
(digression: I see nothing wrong in being cynical. It's a reasonable respose to our world. My husband Jim is cynical; if I'm not, it's just I'm not hard enough and often, like Jane Bennet, can't get rid of hope enough or live without some aspirations.)
On Part 1:
What's hard about it is the representation of social life, mean, cruel, indifferent. When Tess goes to the dance that first night, it's like someone at a modern teenager or 20s club today: abrasive, obtuse, and hard experiences on offer, mostly people deriding or guarded, and Tess rightly leaves the room for fresh air. She is mocked on the way home as a prig. Right. (Alec comes along to rescue her and this enables him to rape her as he gets her alone).
What is hard is her having no one anywhere to turn to as a matter of course. The part ends on her breast-feeding this baby she has, looking about her with no where to turn. Really exhausted, really filthy from her hard work, really excluded and exploited. She sits there looking out.
It put me in mind of Gogol's Overcoat. Yes. Gogol goes out one nigth with his beautiful overcoat, has a miserable time at the phony party, and on the way home his coat is stolen. He tries to get it back and everyone takes revenge on him. One scene has him sitting on the street having lost his job.
I'm not sure this insight is in Hardy; indeed I doubt it. The film-makers have also taken over something from Hardy's Jude the Obscure. In Jude Jude wants to teach himself, but has no money for any books. This is shown to be the real case of working people at the time. Jude hasn't the looks to use the public library. William St Clairs' book shows how few books got into the hands of laborers. Well Tess wants to learn to read and she too can't afford any books. We see her in a classroom trying to learn, but then when her idiot father gets so drunk to lose his horse she is coerced by the mother to go to the D'Urbervilles as one of them for a job. The rest follows (see above). When she comes home pregnant, there is a moment when her well-meaning woman teacher seeks her out; the mother protects Tess from seeing the teacher lest the teacher see her pregnant.
Shades of one of this year's finest movies, An Education -- where the girl however does retrieve the siutation and the teacher is able to get together with her and she makes Oxford (no less) after all.
Not here. And we have a scene in the D'Urberville library where Tess is looking so longingly at the books. Alec comes in and says his father brought them in job lots and never read any. Yes, she can read them anytime she wants. No one else does. So she takes two back to her hut. This is a take-over of some scenes from Jude transposed to a girl's story.
I am liking it very much and will continue. It's a film adaptation of 19th century mattter as the concern is with family life and status centrally far more than delving sex. Sex is just another exploitation; Tess had no much hope anyway given the ways of the world and human nature as seen in this film adaptation.
Oh the role of Tess is done by Gemma Atherton, who played Elizabeth Bennet in the recent Lost in Austen; her typology is then one which includes considerable strength of character.
Blair, Nicholls and Snodin have considerable technological advances over Polanski, in particular a digital revolution in the camera in the middle 1990s that enabled many movies to become mesmerizing dream-machines much more easily, and makes filming out-of-doors hardly different from filming in-doors. And we have made "progess" of sorts in our willingness or ability to go back in time in popular medium. I"ve begun a short moving autobiography from the era, by Mary Smith, who was brought up in just the milieu Thomas Hardy describes, and by intense effort, stubbornness, luck and strong intelligence - as well as refusing to marry or get sexually involved with anyone -- rose to become an effective governess and move out from that misery (which it was) to running a successful school.
What is really striking is how this Part 2 of Tess captures some of the atmosphere of the countryside at the time, and what I now remember is Hardy's remarkable strength is the level of critique he presents -- that he gets inside the mind and hearts of religious hypocrisies to show them up. And this film can take the time to show Tess's father refusing to allow her to go out with her baby lest she be ostracized and shamed, so she can't get the baby baptized, and then the pastor refusing to bury it in a Christian burial, not because he doesn't think her baptism was real, but because he "dare not." Why not? you coerced people into coming into church by refusing to marry or bury them officially by the church if they didn't obey you. We are made to see how this coercion works.
We see the class prejudice fuelling Clare's parents precisely because they are so close in money circumstances to those below the gentry.
This kind of thing, the feel of it is gotten into this film. My feeling is Polanksi was not interested in England in this way; he was writing a parable out of his own life.
There is a falling off when we get to Crick's diary farm. The jollity and how comfy and kind all are doesn't come off. And the depiction of four women running after Clare seems overdone (to say the least). A wet dream by Hardy repeated by these film-makers. On the other hand, this quartet of women is dwelt on so we get this sort of cloying women-together interlude that has sweetness in the friendship the girls show one another. This is probably an attempt to appeal to women viewers, but I guess that Blair, Nicolls and Snodin have never watched real women's films during the day for the hard internecine qualities of such experiences; they are ambiguous.
a strong idea in Part 1 is Tess should never have gone out into the public world, never tried for ambition as this is what it leads to for a young woman of her class (I called this the strong impulse to retreat in these film adaptations everywhere, the world is well lost, not worth it as filled with fools, knaves, all ashes); but Part 2, we see inside the house it's misery too as father is absurd and there is no help indoors for dying baby.
By the end of Part 2 Tess is about to marry Clare and has not yet told him, has tried to and failed, and we are headed for the crash.
Parts 3 and 4:
I watched parts 3 and 4 of this effective mini-series on Saturday night and recommend it as a reading of the novel that makes sense of it in modern Freudian or psychological-social terms. I had put off watching Part 3 because I find the scene where Angel Clare rejects Tess on their wedding so painful, it's hard to go through even though I know it's coming and have gone through it before. This version was not as painful as Polanski's -- partly because everything was done that could be done to make Clare's response acceptable on the level of human frailty: the movie took seriously the notion that once a woman gives up her virginity to one man she's stuck with him for life. (In my recent paper on Richardson's Clarissa, I argued what makes her such a heroine, is she says, no such thing and absurd, as do a few other characters in the book.) Also his religious background and just the whole way the character was acted as emotional, himself hurt, oh how it pained him too to do this. How ill he was and distressed and how his family felt for him. Polanski was truer to Hardy's character in making him stern and unforgiving with no qualifications.
Similarly, the movie made Tess's murder of Alec more understandable. She has learnt to loathe him for himself, never mind her desire to run away with this beloved Angel of hers. We see that his religious conversio quickly falls from him, and as soon as he begins to get close to Tess, that he will treat her with casual derision. We are given the scene where she kills Alec from the other side of the door, as heard by the landlady. He taunts her when she comes with her reproaches that now, see, Clare has come and Alec had said he would never.
Even better -- or equally true to human nature -- was the sense in the film that she killed Alec because all the morality she had been taught by her society had been shown up to be cant, hypocrisy, useless. Since she has lived this wretched hard life scrabbling on dirt farms, treated like an animal despite all she did to obey work ethic, respect parents and whatever other morality she had been taught, what did murder matter? It's all lies anyway. The movie conveyed something of this sense of senselessness of human society, its lies, and how someone on the other side of respectability will feel about it. She and Alec were continually moving we were told. What Alec didn't realize is how this affected Tess and made her dangerous.
Jemma Atherton as Tess plays her as a very strong young woman who had a genuine ethical sense and when anyone gives her a chance, they start to respect her. When she flees with Clare at the close, we get the feeling she's much stronger than him. She was much stronger than Alec -- perhaps the equivalent of her mother with brains. Alec is a thankless part but Hans Mathiessen managed to bring him alive. He is contemptible in comparison with her, and she knows it. She scotches him a with a knife.
The sequences of hard work with the manager gradually beginning to respect Tess who he despised as a "loose" woman were effective, also her friendships with her three women friends, one of whom commits suicide.
I don't remember the book well enough to say if any of the hinge-points were changed. I didn't remember that Clare marries Tess's younger sister as earnest he will now take care of these Durberfields.
They did keep the atheist talk of Clare now and again (doubts at any rate) and also Alec, but it was not thematized in any thing in the film so that level of meaning was lost.
Both films make for intelligent absorbiing readings and experiences. I don't know quite how they fit into 19th century films any more than I've suggested before. I would need to watch more of these films.
How late these films are sometime put on PBS; I know they are broadcast in truncated form. Some conversatiosn and reading I've done attributes the US lack of quality tilms on TV to something beyond the unqualified capitalist setup of the TV stations and lack of a tradition of genuine informing of people through documentaries: the reality is very many fewer Americans are interested in watching such mini-series of serious high quality books. They just don't. Whether this is a facet of the intense anti-intellectualism of US life as outlined so long agao by Hoffstadter I don't know.
Tess: how she began life, full of hope
Walking away from her dead baby's grave -- which the community would not (she was told) give a decent burial to.
I concentrate on figures for in this and the 1999 Jude just below -- unlike Polanski, the emphasis is the close-up, the dramatic moment within a sequence of shots; for Polanksi it remains the long shot, the framed picture, a mark of its arthouse nexus.
The hopeful believing Jude (Christopher Eccleston) studying Latin
They too end with dead babies (portrait shot of Kate Winslet as Sue Brideshead at film's end)
I was reminded of Stonehenge when I watched the 2008 Tess; last night I saw a yet more powerful film adaptation of a Hardy novel, Jude, the 1996 film by Michael Winterbottom and Hossein Amini, starring Kate Winslet (Sue), Christopher Eccleston (Jude), Liam Cunningham (Phillotson), Rachel Griffiths (Arabella) and June Whitfield (Jude's aunt).
It's another in the nitty gritty mode -- begun in the later 1990s. The film makers keep a great deal of the original hingepoints: how Jude wants to learn Latin and better himself, goes to Christminster, studies hard and is excluded even from the test. Had he taken it, we know no one would have hired him anyway because of his origins and class appearance, manners, lack of any connections. This is newly relevant material today (it seems there was a brief middle period in teh 20th century where exclusionary practices were modified in many areas of school and life; mostly gone or going now). They keep the appalling sequence where Arabella kills that poor pig and we watch it slowly die. Her flight to Australia and return and remarriage (bigamous). At the same time as much is cored away so the center is the relationship and characters of Sue and Jude. We miss the relationship with Phillotson so that all we get is his being shoved aside and misery and not how he treated her.
Diane Sadoff's half a page on this movie is comically inadequate. She goes on about how the sex is open and not romanticized or hidden as if that were what's important. It's just part of the whole mise-en-scene far more raw than the 2008 Tess (by the way). It seems to me a mise-en-scene for a rural Victorian novel is often Edwardian kind of costumes even if in mid-century -- you see this early on in Love for Lydia.
Since I assume many may have seen the film (it was much admired at the time), I'll zero in on three elements for now. (I wish I had the time to reread the book but I will at least resee the film and read more about the book.) Sue is presented far more sympathetically than Hardy does: I've been put off by the book by the way he seems to blame her for frigidity without looking into why she reacts to sexual advances the way she does. Kate Winslet is just brilliant in conveying a complex woman's presence. Arabella too is added to so she is not just this siren tramp who captured (ensnared?) Jude; later we see her care about her son. Like Hardy, though her pragamticism is meant to contrast with Sue's intransigent non-conformity as one of the causes of the final plunge into despair.
The film (like Hardy) skirts over the older boy, Jude's son suicide and murder of his half-brother and sister. It's such taboo material to show a 12 year old doing this, to go beyond and try to suggest some of his less sympathetic motives (getting back as well as hysteria) is probably too much to ask, but the movie does (unlike Hardy) make it plain that Sue is not to blame but reacting like all to the exclusion, ostacizing, abysms of poverty she and Jude end up in. The film does not show us Jude's death, only the scene where she refuses to go back and he is left screaming by the children's graves in the snow. I felt this was too abrupt.
As with the 2008 Tess, this film does justice to the anti-religion themes of Hardy's book. When Kate has her final self-hatred conversion experience and goes back to Philotson she does this through religious rationale and Jude protests long and hard. They are in fact married more than anyone he has known ever he says.
The two against the world is felt so strongly and their early joy so beautifully done. The film thus marginalizes the social community who seem to be to the side most of the time, simply completely without understanding and only occasionally does a kind person help out -- this is I think unlike many Victorian films.
Again at the start:
Rewatching and studying bits, I've become convinced it's one of the best Victorian adaptations I've seen this round -- different from Andrew Davies and Sandy Welch's best ones, and in the way it's different getting at deep problems in human existence today as well as presenting the Victorian era seriously from the standpoint of exposing social and familial pathologies.
It's the rawness of the film, the complete refusal to pretty up most of the time, the genuineness of the feeling between the central couple in all its array that is gotten at as well as complexity of character. It's not true a movie is ncessarily simpler than a book. This film is another that shows that (Bergman is the standard here for me.)
Sue is finally or fundamentally seen as a social problem, and her problems as social troubles rather than delving deeply within her and Jude and others to discover how they perceive and enact their sexuality as would have been done in the great 18th century novels like say Clarissa or Diderot's La Religieuse or LaClos or a host of such like writers. Sp next up: how films based on 18th century texts differ.
For Part 2, click here.