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The Essence of 'Tess'

September 13, 1998|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The creative team of A&E's lush new adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 19th century novel, "Tess of the D'Urbervilles," made a conscious decision not to revisit Roman Polanski's 1980 Oscar-winning version.

"We all shared a similar vision, having read the book," says producer Sarah Wilson. "We wanted to do our version and not at all be influenced by Polanski's version, which I saw 18 years ago and haven't seen since."

Polanksi's film, best known for its erotic strawberry seduction scene involving Natassja Kinski and Leigh Lawson, was "incredibly beautiful," says Wilson. "But she was passive in it. We didn't want to make her a passive heroine. She is quite feisty, spirited and full of passion."

Tess, who was Hardy's favorite heroine, is a poor but beautiful, intelligent young woman (played by Justine Waddell) who is sent by her drunken father to take a service job with a wealthy family. The son of the household, Alec (Jason Flemyng), is instantly smitten and forces himself upon her. Pregnant, Tess returns home, only to have the baby die.

She then leaves to work on a dairy farm, where she falls in love with the noble Angel Clare (Oliver Milburn). But again, it is tragedy, not true happiness, that awaits Tess and the men in her life.

"Tess" is the latest adaptation by A&E and the BBC of classic British novels, including "Pride and Prejudice," "Emma," "Ivanhoe," "Jane Eyre" and "Tom Jones."

A&E's Delia Fine, vice president of film, drama and performing arts programming, says the cable network chose "Tess" as the next project because it's "one of the great books and certainly one of Thomas Hardy's better-known titles. It's a deeply compelling and deeply moving story."

British newcomer Waddell seems to be the perfect embodiment of the doomed Tess in the four-hour adaptation, which was filmed last winter in England's Dorset countryside.

"The casting director saw about 300 girls from the ages of 16 to about 28," recalls producer Wilson. "We called Justine back for a second interview. She was the right age and very mature, but also she's quite young, too, and has a spirituality about her. We screen-tested eight actresses and Justine, we felt, was the one who captured the essence of Tess as we saw her."

Waddell, 22, who had a small part in last year's "Anna Karenina," says it was shocking to discover how hard life was for country women in the 19th century.

"Once you get out in the field and you see women working as laborers, they had such an awful deal," the actress explains. "They wore these long dresses [to work], and they were treated so badly. They were cheap labor. There were no trade unions or laws. Women were abused to such a degree."

The most challenging aspect of the role, she says, was "trying to put these huge, awful events into some kind of an emotional registry. There is a rape, and then there's a child dying, and then there's a marriage falling apart, and there's a murder and death. You were trying to chart all of those things and what they meant then and what they mean now, and what your connections are to them."

Being in almost every frame, of course, was a lot of pressure. "You look back with hindsight and you say, 'I wish I had more experience [as an actress] beforehand,' but I think that was one of the things that I tried to use to be in common with the character. I think, certainly, when I was filming I had this great feeling of being out of control--big scenes would come up and hit you every day."

The actress also had to learn how to milk cows and handle chickens. "We had milking lessons, which was hysterical because I failed all of them," Waddell says, laughing. "I have such respect for cow milkers. And the chickens were a nightmare because they would fly away."

Waddell's bible during production was Hardy's book, which she had originally read in school. "I think Hardy's quite difficult to read, but you know, it is a great handbook in a way because he was so exact," she says.

"He had this incredible intuition, it seems, about what a young woman would be feeling when she did feel it. He was so particular and so moving in what he wrote, whether it was the description of the weather or what Tess was doing with her hands. I kind of referred to the book every day."

Though Tess is truly trapped, says A&E's Fine, "what I think attracts you to the story is that, whatever her boundaries and limitations may be, there is still this fight of the human spirit to go on and to press on, to go through adversity and somehow triumph. There is still a remarkable purity inside this woman despite all of these terrible things that keep happening."

Part 1 of "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" airs Sunday at 6 and 10 p.m., followed by Part 2 at the same times Monday, on A&E. It repeats Friday and Saturday at 6 and 10 p.m.

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