For the first hour or so of this PBS adaptation of "Tess of the D'Urbervilles," you can almost pretend you're watching a romantic comedy. The atmosphere is "Masterpiece: Classic" at its most gloriously rural - ye old folk music, giggling maidens dancing, a feisty heroine going off to make her fortune with wealthy relatives. You can almost think, after some charming confusion, that a wedding and a happy-ever-after will ensue.
But this is Thomas Hardy, the British author for whom human tragedy is a fine art. Hardy is the maestro of bleak atmosphere and depressing coincidence, and soon enough the PBS "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" begins its irrevocable slide toward sorrow. Storm clouds gather in this two-parter, which begins Sunday at 9 p.m. on Channel 2, and they linger, and they thicken, and finally they rain down on those with good and evil intentions alike.
Directed by David Blair and written by David Nicholls, "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" is an engaging miniseries that evokes the doomed world of a simple young Victorian woman of no means. The adaptation is marred by a storytelling misstep and a casting miscalculation, and yet it ultimately drives home Hardy's sharp sense of Victorian hypocrisy and the resulting heartbreak. Tess, played by Gemma Arterton, is quite different from Nastassja Kinski's fragile heroine in Roman Polanski's 1979 film adaptation, "Tess." Arterton's Tess is spirited and impetuous, and less obviously a victim, but the world preys on her nevertheless. Coproducers PBS and the BBC make Tess a little more modern, perhaps, but no less unfortunate.
At four hours, the miniseries has the time to stay loyal to much of the novel's plot. Tess Durbeyfield's drunken father learns he has roots in the wealthy D'Urberville family, and so he sends his daughter to the D'Urberville estate, and into the web of the predatory Alec D'Urberville (Hans Matheson). One night Alec takes advantage of Tess, and she leaves him and secretly has their child at her parents' home. Later, her path leads her to a dairy farm, where she meets the noble - or maybe not so noble - Angel Clare, played by Eddie Redmayne like a grim John Boy Walton.
I found Arterton, who looks vaguely like Jennifer Garner, distracting for the first half of the miniseries. The actress, who played Strawberry Fields in "Quantum of Solace," exaggerates her petulant facial expressions and her pronunciations in order to prove that Tess is on the verge of being modern. OK, we get it; her Tess is not a delicate flower, but neither should she be a steel magnolia. Tess needs to be natural, a woman of nature. The story and performances around Arterton do prevail, but early on I feared I would never find sympathy for her.
The miniseries also blurs the relationship between Tess and Alec more than is necessary. Clearly he exploits her, sexually and emotionally. And yet the rape scene is drowned in fog and ambiguity - it's too poetic for its own good. Still, so much else about "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" is strong and chilling, and it sweeps you into its downward spiral. As the opening installment of a new season of "Masterpiece: Classic" heavy on Dickens adaptations, "Tess" bodes well.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.