Monday, 20 April 2009

Oh, Tess

I came to Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles quite late, as in, early this year. I'd read most of his other books in High School and beyond but somehow, Tess and I never met. When we did, via audiobook from Audible on many a bus trip to and from work, it was sudden, instant love. I don't know how I lived to the ripe old age of thirty six without knowing the first thing about this book, other than that it was considered traumatic.

Traumatic is fine by me. I can do trauma in my literature. I'm not afraid to be upset. I'm not unwilling to feel. I don't even mind that I will always feel sad when I think of the book. There's a place for sad and Tess Durbeyfield's story is certainly that.

But it's also beautiful, challenging and compelling. Hardy was misunderstood in his time; his exploration of sexual morality made him unpalatable for 19th century reader. There's an honesty and openness in his work that resonates for us now, I think. He was not afraid to dig deep beneath the surface, to examine the accepted morality of the day and expose the damage inflicted by those who upheld it.

You could say I was still reeling from the horror of reading the novel when the recent adaptation, not yet screened in Australia, landed in my hands last week, courtesy of a very dear friend in the UK. She knew I would love this.

Writing a review is not an easy thing. I read a lot of reviews of this adaptation, which stars "Bond Girl" Gemma Arteton (I've never seen her in the Bond Girl role) and they all do things I'm not going to do - go blow by blow into analysis.

If you know the story, you won't need to read the details again. If you don't, it's perhaps enough to say that it's a gut-wrenching story in which you hope with each page that maybe, just for a moment, Tess Durbeyfield will be given some reprieve from the torment and suffering that life dishes out to her.

It all starts out so well, so idyllic. Life in Hardy's fictional county, Wessex on a spring day.

But it doesn't last. Soon there are the men. Alec D' Urberville. Damn, why do the bad ones have to be so very attractive?

And Angel Clare.

One looks as dark and menacing as the other does kind and good. Don't let the look of them deceive you. They are both as reprehensible as each other in the end, both contributing equally, though differently, to the tragedy of Tess's life.

On and on the suffering goes, played out against the prettiness of England's west country, among people with alarming superstitions and limited moral understanding.

By the time the four part series reaches Stonehenge, you've lived a lifetime with Tess, who is barely out of girlhood. The trainwreck ends and I have to say, knowing the end was coming I was full of trepidation. What would they show? What wouldn't they show?

There are several points like that in the story, moments of pure hell which the makers of the adaptation handled carefully, sympathetically and, most importantly, without the heavy handedness that could so render this story utterly unwatchable.

Gemma Arteton, who I had only seen previously, and recently, in Lost in Austen as Lizzie Bennett, gave gentle, beautiful grace to this role. She gives us a Tess who, though a victim, refuses to live like one.

Beautiful. I'll be watching it again. And again. Thank you for sending it to me, Sharon. You made my week. xo


ps the contest is yet to be judged. Just have to pin Sean down to do the judging!