The Place: Wessex, a rural county in Southern England
The Time: 1891
Wintonchestor England. Summer 1891. In a cold empty jail cell a young girl with a red ribbon prepares to be hanged. Her crime is unknown. She is pulled out of her dark cage by a pair of prison guards and led into the sunlight. A crowd has gathered to watch. Slowly, she ascends the steps to the gallows. All eyes are upon her. As the noose tightens around her neck, Tess’ story unravels.
The action flashes back 4 years earlier to the town’s May Dance and we meet the girl behind the mysterious red ribbon - the beautiful, yet troubled Tess Durbeyfield. Just as Tess resolves to take her first steps into womanhood, her struggling family learns they are the last of the once mighty but doomed d’Urberville bloodline. After sufficiently embarrassing Tess at the May Dance with his drunken proclamations, Tess’ father John Durbeyfield retires to the local pub to celebrate the news.
Sent by her over zealous parents to connect with a wealthy branch of the d’Urberville family, Tess resists the seductive advances of her cousin, Alec d’Urberville. The other workers at the d’Urberville estate, particularly Alec’s old flame Car Darch do not take well to Alec’s attentions toward Tess. As Alec escorts Tess back to the estate, the two find themselves alone in the woods and Alec, unable to control himself, takes advantage of Tess.
Tess returns home as an outcast, where she gives birth to a son whom she names Sorrow. When her father refuses to have the dying infant baptized, Tess baptizes the baby. When the town’s parson refuses to give the child a Christian burial, Tess buries the child herself.
One year later, Tess ventures out, finding work as a dairymaid at the pastoral, yet sexually charged Talbothays Dairy. All attentions are focused upon the young, outspoken farm boy, Angel Clare who dictates his atheist manifesto to whoever will listen. Much to the chagrin of the other girls, Angel takes an immediate liking to Tess, who he perceives as the ideal of feminine purity . The two begin a courtship that ultimately leads to the altar with a conflicted Tess harboring the secrets of her past as they take their vows.
As Tess and Angel settle in on their wedding night, they open up to each other about their pasts. When Tess’ secrets are revealed to Angel, it is too much for him to bear and he abandons her. When Tess’ parents hear the news, they are devastated.
To provide for her family, Tess works the barren wasteland of Flintcomb Ash. She dreams of the future she and Angel could have had. On her way to visit her sick father, Tess hears a familiar voice preaching to a crowd. To her horror, Tess realizes it is Alec d’Urberville, now a “man of God”. When Alec sees Tess, he begs for forgiveness and offers to help her struggling family. Tess refuses at first, but when her father dies, leaving her family on the street, Tess knows she must sell her soul and become Alec’s mistress.
Months later, a weary visitor arrives at Tess and Alec’s residence. It is Angel, desperate to return to Tess. After a heated argument between the three, a powerless Tess sends Angel away. Still in shock, Tess turns on Alec for causing her to lose Angel twice. The argument escalates and when Alec becomes violent, Tess grabs a knife from their breakfast table and stabs Alec, killing him.
Tess runs after Angel and when Angel realizes what she has done, he vows to protect her at all costs. The two set off on foot and find shelter for the night at the mystical structure of Stonehenge. There, under the stars, they consummate their marriage but in the morning, awaken to the ominous image of policemen circling the structure. Tess, finally at peace, bravely walks off with the police to accept her fate.
In the town square, the action of the opening scene resumes. Tess is reunited with Angel one last time as she walks to the gallows. As the crowd wonders why Tess’ life is cursed, Tess and Angel affirm that their lives have been blessed and will somehow connect again. Tess faces the hangman with head held high.