Best Director Home Stretch: Roman Polanski for Tess



The competition (Cliff: 4 for 5)

Robert Redford for Ordinary People

David Lynch for The Elephant Man

Richard Rush for The Stunt Man

Martin Scorsese for Raging Bull

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.


As with stories set in the future, period pieces are projections of the present day, and often wind up reflecting the time of their production more than the time in which the story is set. It’s a rare historical film that can seem to step straight out of its era, and I was surprised to see Roman Polanski’s Tess do just that. From Rosemary’s Baby to The Ghost Writer, Polanski’s directorial vision has always seemed to grapple with the troubles of the present day; even Chinatown feels like a projection of 1970s disillusionment and paranoia back to the dusty days of boomtown Los Angeles. For his adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, though, Polanski seems content with the staggering forethought of Thomas Hardy’s social critique, presenting the exquisitely inlaid brutality of English society through the alternately splendid and wretched world of the late Victorian era. Forgoing the familiar faces and places of the impending Merchant-Ivory-led renaissance of British costume drama (even sidestepping England proper to film in Brittany), Polanski’s film presents a searing look at class and gender, one that resonates all the more because it seems to emanate not from a modernist gloss on the past, but from within the cruel regime of the era itself.

Polanski’s directing carefully hints at the concealed brutality of Tess’ existence, feigning her oppressor’s humility just before she pleas for their understanding. The beekeeping vicar or the contrite Angel begin with an aura of encouragement just before she plays her card, after which Polanski subtly recasts their civil demeanors in a monstrous light. He is blessed with terrific performances from a mostly underseen cast of actors, including Natassja Kinski, funneling profound despair and rage into the narrow range of expression the character will allow herself. It’s rather a shock that Kinski wasn’t nominated, given the film’s strong showing and the unusually open Best Actress field. I was also quite a fan of Peter Firth’s lenticular performance as Angel Clare, able to shift from saint to demon with the faintest squint or upturned lip. However, the work behind the camera really conjured the world of 19th century Wessex. Ghislain Cloquet and the late Geoffrey Unsworth were jointly awarded Best Cinematography, and both do an incredibly fine job (though I’m slightly partial to the warm Arcadian exteriors sequences shot by Unsworth in the few months before his death). Pierre Guffroy and Jack Stephens attend to the meticulous and sometimes shoddy realism of both the story and the period—for me, nothing sums up their work more concisely than the crudely chiseled fancy script that adorns John Durbeyfield’s headstone.

Throughout the film, Polanski suggests the pervasive but suppressed cruelty inlaid in English society. For the most part, these glimpses remain fleeting and implicit: Alec’s riding crop hovering in the foreground as Tess looks up at her would-be husband, or the vicar’s offhanded remark that he’d rather give Angel’s charity to the stonemason (“Never paid for his hard work,”) than to the poor. However, even when the brutality spills into the open, we only see the tiniest glimpses of the act itself: the discreet stain of blood clinging to the ceiling or the hem of Tess’ petticoat. The real display of violence is subsumed into Anthony Powell’s perceptive costuming—fleeing the scene, she is dressed from head to toe in sumptuous red. The notion of violence hidden in plain sight culminates in Tess’ flight to Stonehenge, the mystical root of a culture that has offered her up in sacrifice. The spectral presence of history pervades the film; though the reduced title strips away the heroine’s accursed lineage, it remains an immutable force beside her. As she is taken away from the site, accompanied by the plaintive strains of Philippe Sarde’s score, we only see text to inform us of Tess’ fate.  I’m rather convinced Polanski ended the film with this brief excerpt from the novel (instead of simply depicting the scene), because of the significance of the words, “…Wintoncester, the aforetime capital of Wessex.” It is only fitting that we should know that Tess, in the end, returns to the ancient seat of her Norman ancestors’ power.



1980 is one of those infamous years of Oscar injustice, with pretty boy Robert Redford’s directorial debut, the heart-wrenching family melodrama Ordinary People, besting his fellow first-time nominee Martin Scorsese for the virtuoso boxing biopic Raging Bull. Frankly, I believe both films are among the best of the decade, and that’s not even the end of the story in this race. David Lynch, fresh off the cosmically deranged Eraserhead, showed that he could play it straight and still deliver a visual masterpiece with The Elephant Man. I doubt many in 1979 would have guessed any of these three gentlemen could pull off such landmark directorial feats. When I throw in Polanski’s second nomination for his masterful work here, the result is possibly the best top four in the history of the category, rivaled in my eyes only by Altman/Forman/Kubrick/Lumet in 1975. My vote tilts toward Scorsese for his undeniable masterpiece, tempted though I am to be naughty and pick one of the others. All that remains is to see whether the fourth debut nominee, Richard Rush’s film on filmmaking The Stunt Man, can live up to these four gentlemen’s lofty standard!


2 thoughts on “Best Director Home Stretch: Roman Polanski for Tess

  1. Jerome says:

    These are four really great films (well, Ordinary People doesn’t hold up as much – but I remember seeing it at the Bruin and there were sections with AUDIBLE SOBBING coming from the audience. Lots of it. So there’s something to be said for that- esp. in the pre-screener age).
    Loved Tess – but THE STUNT MAN is really a love letter to the cinema, in the vein of DAY FOR NIGHT. I think you’ll like it.

  2. […] for time, I’ll skip right to the chase. I covered this race quite recently with my post on Louis Malle’s Tess, and at the time posited that 1980 might have had the best top-to-bottom […]

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