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  M.   September 15, 2008

Although times have changed in the 117 years since Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles first emerged, the novel’s central social message still rings true: chaos and confoundment will ensue whenever the dung-coated lower orders develop ideas above their station.

And so alas, the tragic Mummersetshire histoire of poor young Tess Durbeyfield unfolded across assorted scenic real-life locations in the first of the sumptuous dramatisation’s four parts. Mangle my dear old wurzle: such sadness in a common girl’s aspiration.

For Tess’s ruinous delusion is that she’s more than a lowly country hoyden. She imagines she can master the reading of books and become a teacher – an outrageous conceit.

By this proud impulse to betterment Tess is piteously undone. If only Tess had heeded her gormless mother’s inadvertent opening prediction: “We ‘ave been ignobled!”

As Tess, Gemma Arterton abundantly fulfilled Hardy’s chief physical requirement: her full red lips enfolded white teeth, evoking snow-filled rose petals. From this inviting cake-hole flowed an indeterminate west country accent, like clotted cream.

Modestly befrocked, Arterton’s sweet Tess strode on verdant clifftops in a manner at once innocent yet provocative; flightily independent but capable of subjugation, her noble visage bespeaking a capacity to suffer wounds.

Tess never stood a chance against cigar-smoking, lust-crazed utter cad Alec D’Urberville, well smouldered by Hans Matheson. It was a very bad start, Tess letting Alec pop a strawberry into her fulsome mouth on their first meeting – don’t allow it, gals!

And Tess should never have taken the job as Alec’s poultry manager at his manor house. “I could stand here all day watching you pouting,” Alec oozed with sinister brio, on discovering Tess as she toiled to master the art of whistling.

Wherever Tess was, Alec did a lot of silent materialising. He loomed malevolently in the library. In Tess’s living-quarters. In mist-wreathed Dingly Dell at night, swooping upon Tess’s sleeping form with base rapaciousness.

And so her maidenhood was cruelly plucked, condemning Tess to a life of turnip-picking and looking unwashed. Tess of the D’Urbervilles on the telly: it’s a lush joy for the massed ranks of swooning romantic melodrama devotees.

Source: The Herald