Tess is a 1979 romance film directed by Roman Polanski, an adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 1891 novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles. It tells the story of a strong-willed, young peasant girl (played by Nastassja Kinski) who finds out she has title connections by way of her old aristocratic surname and who is raped by her wealthy cousin (Leigh Lawson), whose right to the family title may not be as strong as he claims. The screenplay was by Gérard Brach, John Brownjohn, and Roman Polanski. The film won three Academy Awards and was nominated for three more.
Its events are set in motion innocently enough when a clergyman, Parson Tringham, has a conversation with a simple farmer, John Durbeyfield. Tringham is a local historian; in the course of his research, he has discovered that the "Durbeyfields" are actually descended from the d'Urbervilles, a noble family whose lineage extends to the time of William the Conqueror. It is useless knowledge, really, as the family lost its land and prestige when the male heirs died out. The parson merely thinks Durbeyfield might like to know his origins as a passing historical curiosity.
Unfortunately, Durbeyfield immediately becomes fixated upon the idea of regaining his lost nobility, and using it to somehow better his family's fortunes. To this end, he sends his daughter Tess to seek employment with a family named d'Urberville living in a nearby manor house. Alec d'Urberville is delighted to meet his beautiful "cousin", and he tries to seduce her with strawberries and roses. But Alec is no relation to Tess; he has gotten his illustrious name and coat of arms by purchasing them. Alec falls in love with Tess, eventually rapes her, and she leaves, pregnant; back at home, the baby is born sickly and dies.
Some time later, Tess goes to a dairy farm and begins work as a milkmaid. There she meets her true love: an aspiring young farmer from a respectable family, named Angel Clare. Angel believes Tess to be an unspoiled country girl, and completely innocent. They fall in love, but Tess does not guiltily confess her previous relationship with Alec until their wedding night. Disillusioned, Angel rejects her and Tess finds herself alone once again.
Deserted by her husband, Tess meets Alec d'Urberville again. At first, she angrily rebuffs his advances. But after her father's death, the Durbeyfield family falls upon desperately hard times, facing starvation, eviction and homelessness. Tess is forced to resume her torrid relationship with Alec, becoming his mistress in order 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 is remorseful at his treatment of Tess. He succeeds in tracking her down—but leaves heartbroken when he finds her cohabiting 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; for 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. The ending summary explains her conviction and being hanged for murder.
- Nastassja Kinski as Tess Durbeyfield
- Peter Firth as Angel Clare
- Leigh Lawson as Alec Stokes-d'Urberville
- John Collin as John Durbeyfield
- Rosemary Martin as Mrs. Durbeyfield
- Carolyn Pickles as Miriam
- Richard Pearson as Vicar of Marlott
- David Markham as Reverend Clare
- Pascale de Boysson as Mrs. Clare
- Suzanna Hamilton as Izz Huett
- Caroline Embling as Retty
- Tony Church as Parson Tringham
- Lesley Dunlop as Girl in henhouse
- Sylvia Coleridge as Mrs. d'Urberville
- Fred Bryant as Dairyman Crick