That haunting song has been stuck in my head ever since I saw this four-part BBC miniseries. It was a stroke of genius to incorporate this folk tune into the soundtrack (composed by Rob Lane), which sums up the mood and aura of this tragic tale of a young woman wronged so unjustly by two men. Gemma Arterton is wonderful as Tess Durbeyfield, probably Thomas Hardy's most well-loved heroine, exploited by her ignorant parents into claiming noble heritage and discarded by 19th century society. Hans Matheson is Alec Stoke-d'Urberville, the wealthy cad who violates her, unknowingly impregnates her with a child who doesn't survive babyhood and later comes back into her life as a supposedly reformed preacher. Eddie Redmayne is Angel Clare, the seemingly kind-hearted and tolerant parson's son who wins Tess's love but proves to be just as hypocritical as his religious family and his actions bring Tess to despair. As in most Hardy tales, tragedy looms a large shadow over the lives of his characters.
Arterton's Tess is matched perfectly by Matheson's Alec, who is given more depth than any of the earlier film adaptations. The dark and tormented essence gives you the sense how doomed these two characters really are - their actions and words toward each other leads to their downfall. Unfortunately, the same cannot be applied to Redmayne's Angel, who looks befuddled and lost more than half the time. There is a rushed directorial pace in the second installment that hurts the romantic appeal between Tess and Angel, and the love story element seems a bit forced as a result. Because of that, I didn't get the appeal of Angel in this one, or why Tess and her fellow dairymaids were in love with him, or why Tess takes the desperate course of action in order to get him back. Some of the modern dialogue used did take away from the affect of the story, and Redmayne seemed to have a hard time keeping up with Arterton performance-wise. Redmayne redeemed himself somewhat in the final episode but for the most part I was unimpressed with him. However, director David Blair must take some of the criticism, as the hurried scenes to establish the "romance" seemed to skim over the parts of the novel that gave the lovers the attachment to one another that eventually leads Angel to see the error of his ways and beg his wife's forgiveness. I was anticipating Alec's return so much that I found myself not really caring if Angel came back for Tess or not. In sharp contrast, the 1998 A&E/London Weekend Television production had me rooting for Tess and Angel's reunion even though I was aware of the outcome. I was so taken by Angel in that one, whereas here I found nothing in him to be slightly attractive or romantic. I sympathized with Tess completely and neither man deserved her, but at least in the other version and the novel I could see why she loved Angel and longed for him to return to her. I found myself almost rooting for Alec (I never thought I'd say that), because Matheson was so compelling and magnetic and he and Arterton generated such electricity, I couldn't take my eyes off them. Alec's fleeting conversion to Christianity and his sermon in the tent that Tess stumbles upon is foreshadowing of the path these two ill-fated characters will end up on. The moment he lays eyes on her again, his fatal attraction and twisted love for her resurfaces and consumes him, and Tess finds herself increasingly helpless to refuse his help after her father dies and her family is left destitute. Alec's wealth is the only way he can possess her and he is aware of that, but he is willing to get her the only way he can, only to discover that fate does indeed play a vengeful hand. It was also nice to see Tess revisiting her child's grave and placing fresh flowers upon it; her deeply felt sense of loss and rejection by both the church and her village is searingly devastating because it becomes all the more clear that she is victim of both society (in which women had few advantages) and fate. Having said that, Tess and Angel's reunion did not have the emotional impact it should have had, the sex scene was unnecessary, but the Stonehedge sequence was an emotional powerhouse for Arterton, as was the climax of her walking off to her fate with her signature tune heard wistfully in the background. The supporting cast was in top form, and while the cinematography was lovely, it could have emphasized far more considering how important landscape is in Hardy's work, as both the 1998 two part program and Roman Polanski's 1979 film have demonstrated. As a four-part miniseries, it had the opportunity to include more scenes from the novel and insight into character, particularly Angel, which would have helped the plot a great deal. However, it was good to see the mausoleum scene and the ending was heartbreaking and moving, although my tears were for Tess, her sister Liza-Lu, and, dare I say it, even Alec, but I felt nothing for Angel (although Redmayne's tearful breakdown was by far his best moment).
On the whole, this was a very good presentation, my second favorite version and very much worth seeing. Arterton and Matheson give tour-de-force portrayals; it would be great if they would co-star again, some have suggested as Cathy and Heathcliff in "Wuthering Heights" - I could definitely see that. And that song will linger on in your memory long after the final credits have rolled, as will the rest of the score.