The title character in this faithful retelling of Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel suffers (and suffers, and then suffers some more) for her beauty, which at times can make an otherwise-sumptuous production a bit of a slog. Nevertheless, this BBC-PBS collaboration features a finely tragic performance from recent Bond lass Gemma Arterton, kicking off a season of “Masterpiece Classic” filled with high-profile titles, including a two-part “Wuthering Heights” and an extended tribute to Charles Dickens. So for now, anyway, public TV’s storied relationship with British costume dramas remains happily intact.
Adapted by Roman Polanski nearly 30 years back (with Natassja Kinski in the title role) and again for British television a decade ago, Hardy’s story explores issues of class in 19th century England as well as double standards regarding the purity of women — in this case, Arterton’s naive peasant girl, who is done no favors by her layabout parents.
Instead, after her father, John Durbeyfield (Ian Puleston-Davies), is told by a mischievous minister that he bears a strong resemblance to the noble D’Urberville clan, Tess is dispatched to “claim kin” with her possible relatives. Unfortunately, the family connection is merely a charade, and while she’s given work on the estate, she also catches the eye of the presiding matron’s roguish son Alec (Hans Matheson, who played Dr. Zhivago in a 2002 TV reprise), beginning what amounts to his single-minded campaign to deflower her.
That he eventually does, in an artfully shot sequence that places the encounter somewhere between rape and seduction. Either way, the distraught Tess flees back home, later taking a job as a milkmaid where she joins the other girls in pining for the aristocratic and kindly Angel (“The Good Shepherd’s” Eddie Redmayne), who is there learning the trade.
Angel falls for Tess, too, and finally proposes to her, but she carries the secret of her nonvirginal status as well as that of the deceased baby that she bore. “At last I can be happy!” Tess proclaims, but that’s before she decides to be completely honest with her new husband, which, as anyone knows, is seldom the prescription for a successful relationship.
Wide-eyed and lovely, Arterton conveys the pitiful plight of her simple character trapped in an unforgiving society, though, stretched over two nights, the adaptation by a trio of Davids (director Blair, writer Nicholls, producer Snodin) becomes an arduous trek — especially when the abandoned Tess reconnects with the still-persistent Alec. Fortunately, the payoff is strong enough to justify all that hiking across lush countryside — along with “Masterpiece’s” continuing stroll through the great works of English literature.