Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Critic’s-Eye View: “Tess”

When I posted my review of Meg Rickards’s new film Tess, I noticed that mine is the only external review to which a link is provided on the film’s IMDb page. For those who’ve stumbled onto this page from there looking for a range of views on the film, I include here a few notes from other reviews published by South African moviegoers, with links where possible.

Writing for the City Press last June, when Tess was playing at the Durban International Film Festival, Charl Blignaut notes that the “young actress Christia Visser gives one of the bravest, most potent and internalised performances of any of the films at the Durban International Film Festival this year.” Further describing the aesthetic value of the film, he writes:

“Director Meg Rickards has moved from documentary features to narrative ones and brings that journalistic gaze along. Her opening sequence – shot by a drone racing across the ocean until it crashes into Tess’s balcony window – is majestic and her performance direction solid. Almost too solid in that this is a conventional and realistic film with little experimentation. Where it takes risks, though, is in its content.

For once the sex worker is a white woman and it is black women who come to her aid, neatly flipping the script. The violent male gangster is also countered by a kind and confused husband. And, gratefully, Rickards has shot in luminous light colours and delicious blues, contesting her dark story.

Harrowing and important, the film is in competition in Durban and has one last screening tonight. Take your man friends and go and see it. You’ll need a drink afterwards.”

In last Friday’s Beeld, Marguerite van Wyk (of Sarie magazine) declares:

“This film stirs your emotions. Just like Tess, masterfully interpreted by Christia Visser, the viewer embarks on a kind of inward journey to try make sense of life. …

With great bravado, stubbornly, we get to know her in her miniskirt, eyes smeared with too much eyeliner, high-heeled boots, and swaying hips, but when she’s back in her lonely little flat after a day’s work, where she swallows down pain medication with Coke, you see the burdened suffering in her eyes. Her nails, with the deep, dark red nail polish flaking off, and the dilapidated block of flats she lives in are symbolic of her life just not working out.

This film is not stuffed with heaps of dialogue. Expect shots that focus on meaningful, forlorn scenes and emotional faces that do the talking instead. …

The film is like a hard punch that knocks the wind out of you because you almost can’t believe how cruelly people treat each other. Yet Tess lets you realise once more that you needn’t be a victim of your circumstances. And ultimately the message is: You can hold on to your empathy, no matter how hard life hits you.”
[My own translation]

Leon van Nierop’s short capsule review in Sunday’s Rapport runs:

“This upsetting local film about social issues, for which Christia Visser received the Silver Screen Award for best actress, is about a sex worker that falls pregnant and tries to survive on the Cape Flats. The sex scenes are explicit but motivated, while Meg Rickards’s sober direction addresses a social problem like seldom before. It lays bare the dark side of the Cape that postcards never show.”
[My own translation]

On the Channel24 website, in a review posted for the films release on Friday, in addition to a recount and analysis of plot and character, Graye Morkel writes:

“The crisp and raw imagery gives us a look into the rough parts of Muizenberg as well as the picturesque views of the seaside. But, just like Tess’s twisted reality, the cinematography is abrupt and moves quickly. And we never stay too long in just one moment. …

Tess overcomes adversities and becomes a symbol of strength to those who have been forced to live on the outskirts of society, making the story of Tess an even more important one to tell. This is not the type of movie to see if you are in the mood for a casual watch.”

In an undated review for the site What’s On in Cape Town, Mustapha Hendricks asserts:

“Writer and director Meg Rickards leads us by the hand on a deeply personal journey. One where the focus is not so much on the events but on the feelings and inner shifts that occur within Tess. The cinematography, by Bert Haitsma, is crisp, raw, and beautiful, like Tess herself. The shots range from claustrophobic with stark shifts in focus, to breathtaking cinematic pans across the seaside landscape. And our ears go right along for the journey. We phase in and out of ambient sounds, isolating specific noises, building tension. Like Tess, we are never fully in the moment – we drift from the din of the present to the quiet discord of the past. All this is beautifully pieced together by the incredible work of editor Linda Man. Awkward cuts and jumpy juxtapositions bring to life the harshness of Tess’s world. This is a film with a distinct aesthetic – one you will not soon forget.”

Writing in Sunday’s City Press for the films release, Rhode Marshall said:

“Without moralising, the film tackles issues around prostitution, sexual abuse, rape and addiction. It will strip you of any desensitised feelings you may have about sexual abuse and rape, and how women and girl children have to adjust their world when those closest to them are the perpetrators. 

The fact that Tess is a sex worker is almost incidental. She’s a young woman who is undergoing a tumultuous journey: facing the truth of her childhood, coming to terms with it and moving forward with her inner dignity intact. You feel her suffering like a punch in the gut. …

Without ever resorting to cliches, her journey is enhanced by the cinematography and music, which help you perfectly experience and explore the hurtful world of this layered character.”

In her review for the Afrikaans literary and culture site LitNet, Suzette Kotzé-Myburgh declared Tess “the kind of film that makes every adjective a reviewer can choose feel banal.” She continues:

“The story is told with little dialogue, a striking soundtrack, and outstanding cinematography (gritty images, lighting almost totally white). Don’t expect for a single moment even a hint of the beautiful Cape in Tess’s world of abandoned train tracks, neglected blocks of flats, and windswept beaches. Also don’t expect a romanticisation of prostitution as a career – this is not Pretty Woman, it’s hard, shocking reality. … If you’re serious about film as an artform, you must go and see Tess.” 

I unthinkingly threw away the review that appeared in the Tonight entertainment supplement to the newspapers of the Independent News & Media group (and that I receive in the Pretoria News), and I can’t find it on the website.

I’d be happy to hear of and feature any other reviews of the film here.

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