Natassja Kinski, in her late teens at the time, won the role of Tess after living in England for several months and practicing her accent. Kinski's Tess is introspective, brooding, and somewhat passive. In a film that runs over three hours, she has very little dialogue, and while her accent comes and goes, she is bewitching to look at, and certainly offers the locations of Normandy and Brittany competition for alluring beauty. However, she does look too exotic to be an English country girl.
Justine Waddell's Tess a combination of strength, vulnerability, optimism and cynicism. Her innocence at the beginning is not in question, yet she possesses a great amount of inner strength and depth. Waddell also seems like a homegrown country maiden with her build and coltish beauty. Her eyes express a well of emotions that words can't fully explain; and feelings are genuinely conveyed.
The main flaws is the chosen scenes and dialogue in some sequences, as well as miscasting (in my opinion anyway) of the role of Angel.
At first, I didn't warm up to Gemma Arterton's Tess. Maybe because she was playing younger than her age, she tried too hard to seem younger, but as the series went on she began to grow on me. Arterton has a porcelain, English-rose like persona in period drama, and the range of emotions in this story is exhausting and amazing, and she carries it very well. In her optimism she wants to believe that things will be all right in the end but fate is her enemy. And although I wonder in this version if Angel is deserving of her love, Arterton makes us believe her longing.
Hans Matheson as Alec Stoke D'Urberville
He caused Tess a lot of pain but he was genuinely remorseful before he returned to type. The dynamic between Tess and Alec here is something I've never seen before - I almost wanted them to be together it was so strong. Sometimes chemistry is there and sometimes it isn't - it's not something that can be created, it just is. And these actors have it. Matheson also has a very boyish and charismatic presence, which makes him stiff competition for Angel. Here Alec can seem like a respectable young man. He isn't, of course, but he can give that illusion. If Tess had loved him, would that have made him a better man? Interesting question to ponder.
Eddie Redmayne as Angel Clare
Rob Lane's score is expressive, and the inclusion of the folk song "The Snow It Melts The Soonest" was a brilliant addition - the haunting melody sums up the aura of Tess's tragic tale. The supporting cast was excellent and director David Blair managed to balance out the character and plot development in the last two episodes. The second episode is the weakest due to the rushed pace of Tess and Angel's romance and bonding, the brief glimpse of Alec and the poor characterization of Angel. The sex scene was a bit much, as was the modernization of dialogue in some sequences, but the ending, a "only if" climactic added some slightly uplifting quality to Tess's somber life. My second favorite, if I may say so.
In conclusion, all three presentation of Hardy's classic novel are worthy editions to any DVD library - each take on the story has its own interpretations, and each actress who portrayed Tess brought her own qualities and essence to the role.
A video I complied of clips of all three films together: