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  M.   January 02, 2009

Hardy heroine faces injustice with head high in ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’

TESS OF THE D’URBERVILLES. Sunday night at 9, WNET/Ch.13

PBS’ “Masterpiece Theater” kicked off 2008 with a Jane Austen festival.

It kicks off 2009 with a new two-night, four-hour miniseries of Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” which visually seems eerily similar to Austen. Yet it pokes into a far darker, more debilitating side of life for even the most buoyant and resilient of women in the 19th century.

What makes Tess Durbeyfield’s life difficult, happily, makes the drama rich for “Masterpiece” fans. The fact many will be familiar with the story makes this latest interpretation no less engrossing.

Gemma Arterton, most recently seen with a far different attitude as the latest Bond Girl, plays Tess traditionally and well. Abused and whipsawed by the customs of her day, which held that women were to blame for most of the terrible injustices inflicted upon them, she never wavers in her determination to make her life better, a goal that would also make the world better.

When she is raped and bears a child who lives only a few weeks, her father refuses to let her take the dying baby to the church for baptism, saying it would bring shame to the family.

When the child dies, the priest refuses to permit a Christian burial, since there had been no baptism.

Tess tells the priest that if that is how his church treats the eternal life of an innocent child, like a bureaucrat telling a customer she hadn’t filled out the proper form, she wants nothing further to do with him.

Like Austen’s heroines, Tess isn’t fighting for feminism as much as simple decency. Unlike Austen’s heroines, she has only the smallest chance to find it, because Hardy shares neither Austen’s faith in basic human goodness nor her optimism that living an honest, decent life is a ticket to happily ever after.

The sociable, striking Tess has no trouble meeting men. The problem lies in their flaws, which range from the self-delusion of the kind man she loves, Angel Clare (Eddie Redmayne), to the cruel arrogance of the phony aristocrat who regards her as a perk of his position, Alec (Hans Matheson).

Arterton captures both Tess’ uncertainty as each man’s nature emerges and her ultimate recognition of how she must respond.

“I have enough honor left, little as it is, not to lie,” she tells Alec. “You are just dust and ashes to me now.”

It took courage to deliver that speech in Tess’ day, and this production creates the context that makes her courage clear.

Literally and metaphorically, Tess walks what look like many of the same paths as Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” heroine, Elizabeth Bennet. If they met, which would have been good for both of them and fascinating for us, they would have had much to talk about.

Source: New York Daily News