Tess (1979 film)

Tess is a 1979 drama film directed by Roman Polanski and starring Nastassja Kinski, Peter Firth, and Leigh Lawson. It is an adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 1891 novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles.[1] The screenplay was written by Gérard Brach, John Brownjohn, and Roman Polanski. The film received positive critical reviews upon release and was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, winning three for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.

Original theatrical release film poster
Directed byRoman Polanski
Produced byClaude Berri
Screenplay byGerard Brach
John Brownjohn
Roman Polanski
Based onTess of the d'Urbervilles
by Thomas Hardy
StarringNastassja Kinski
Peter Firth
Leigh Lawson
Music byPhilippe Sarde
CinematographyGhislain Cloquet
Geoffrey Unsworth
Edited byAlastair McIntyre
Tom Priestley
Renn Productions
Timothy Burrill Productions
Distributed byColumbia Pictures (United States)
Renn Productions (France)
Release date
  • 31 October 1979 (1979-10-31) (France)
  • 12 December 1980 (1980-12-12) (US)
  • 9 April 1981 (1981-04-09) (UK)
Running time
186 min
United Kingdom
Budget$12 million (est.)
Box office$20.1 million


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

The events of the story are set in motion when a clergyman, Parson Tringham, has a chance conversation with John Durbeyfield, a simple farmer. Tringham is a local historian, and in the course of his research he has discovered the "Durbeyfields" are descended from the d'Urbervilles, a noble family whose lineage extends to the time of William the Conqueror. 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 soon becomes fixated upon the idea of using his noble lineage to better his family's fortunes. Finding a wealthy family named d'Urberville living nearby, he and his wife send their daughter Tess to call on his presumed relations, and seek employment at the manor house. At the manor house lives Alec d'Urberville and his mother. Tess is a beautiful girl, and Alec d'Urberville has an appetite for women. Alec and his mother know they are no relation to Tess, for their family name and coat of arms had been purchased. Finding her naive, penniless and attractive, he sets about taking advantage of the situation. He tries to get her alone, and attempts to seduce her with strawberries and roses, but these efforts are parried by Tess. In time, he rapes her.

Tess returns home and soon discovers she is pregnant. She is angry with her mother for placing her at risk when she knew so little of the cruelness of the world. The baby is born sickly and dies. Some time later, Tess goes to a dairy farm to work as a milkmaid. She meets Angel Clare, an aspiring young farmer from a respectable family. He believes Tess to be an unspoiled country girl, and completely innocent. The two fall in love, but Tess does not reveal her previous relationship with Alec until their wedding night. Disillusioned and heartbroken by the news, Angel rejects her.

Deserted by her husband, Tess meets Alec d'Urberville again. She at first angrily rebuffs his advances, but the death of her father puts the family in desperately hard times. Facing starvation, eviction and homelessness, Tess is compelled to resume her relationship with Alec as his mistress 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 alive, as she was departing back for America while he stayed on a while longer in Europe to finish working on a film. She was murdered by the Manson Family on 9 August 1969 while he was away. The film is dedicated to her ("To Sharon") at the beginning.

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: Normandy (Cotentin, la Hague, Omonville-la-Rogue, Éculleville, Sainte-Croix-Hague, le Vast, Bricquebec, Saint-Jacques-de-Néhou, 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 U.S. 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 of the 17th century and Gustave Courbet of the 19th century.[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".


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 the 33rd highest-grossing film of 1980.[4]

Alternate versions

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 U.S. at a re-edited length of 170 minutes.[5] Later, overseas releases of the film in theaters and on home video ran as little as 136 minutes. The 170-minute cut is Polanski's approved version of the film.[6] This version recently was restored in 4K from the original negative under Polanski's supervision, and he attended its premiere at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.[7]


Critical reception

Tess received positive reviews from critics. On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 81% based on 26 reviews, and an average rating of 7.2/10.[8] In a review in The New York Times, Janet Maslin described Tess as "a lovely, lyrical, unexpectedly delicate movie".[9] The film is regarded as one of Polanski's rare love stories, and one of his most highly acclaimed works.[10]


Tess was nominated for six awards, including Best Picture, at the 53rd Academy Awards and won three.[11] 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. 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. "Tess (1980)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 30 August 2014.
  5. "Movie Reviews". 2 April 2019 via NYTimes.com.
  6. "Tess". The Criterion Collection.
  7. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 24 September 2015. Retrieved 9 August 2015.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  8. "Tess (1979)". Rotten Tomatoes (Fandango Media). Retrieved 4 November 2019.
  9. Janet Maslin (12 December 1980). "Tess (1979)". The New York Times. Retrieved 4 September 2013.
  10. Eurochannel. "A Film and Its Era: Tess, by Roman Polanski - France - Euro Cinema - English - Eurochannel". Eurochannel: The European TV channel - European movies, TV series and music.
  11. "NY Times: Tess". NY Times. Retrieved 31 December 2008.
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