Tess, is a film adaptation of Tracey Farren's novel, Whiplash, which follows the heartrending journey of a sex worker who falls pregnant, and the difficulties she encounters on the streets of Cape Town.
Directed by Meg Rickards and starring Christia Visser, this important and hard-hitting drama is a passion project. Important, because it sheds light on long-standing social issues such as the abuse of women in a country deemed as one of the worst affected in the world. Hard-hitting, in the way the filmmakers don't spare the audience from some unsettling scenes, which while graphic, are necessary in representing the plight of a lowly sex worker and a violent rape culture, which has shaped her view of the world.
Christia Visser delivers a full range performance as the title character, Tess. Jaded and somewhat numb, she captures the essence of a woman who has been sidelined by an unforgiving society, destined to a rinse-and-repeat lifestyle trading her soul in exchange for a meagre existence. While she captures the nature of the character, it's also a brave and gritty performance.
Supported by Brendon Daniels as an unhinged criminal, Dann Jaques Mouton as a sincere patron and Nse Ikpe-Etim as a concerned neighbour, it's easy for Visser to immerse herself in the role. The ensemble's inherent quality extends to smaller supporting roles with Mark Elderkin playing a violent misogynist and Greg Kriek a family "friend". Each of the actors is forced to push the limits of comfort, portraying a range of men with deep-seated social and psychological issues. Rickards isn't clustering all men as evil, but conveying the tragedy and terror of Tess's past and present circumstances.
"Nobody should ever own anybody."
It must have been quite painful for Rickards to direct this film, going through hell along with the actors to establish intensity and realism. While harrowing, it also has a raw beauty as evidenced by the artful cinematography and rich symbolism at play. Set in Muizenberg village and along the Baden Powell beach road, the seaside vistas and blue skies give the film a sense of hope as they contrast this freedom against the confines of her apartment block.
While the intention is to expose abuse and create awareness, Tess does walk a tightrope in effecting this message. While unsettling at times, this harsh realism gives the film clout, delving into the devil's playground to create impact value and hopefully provoke the right conversations. It's a challenging film that will undoubtedly haunt audiences and Rickards hasn't shied away, giving Tess dramatic tension instead of simply churning out propaganda.
It's been sparsely scripted, allowing the beautifully shot visuals to tell a deceptively simple story about a vulnerable sex worker trying to decide whether she wants to keep the baby or not. The gritty, minimalist and poetic treatment of this character portrait drama makes it a niche film, laced together by an excellent lead performance and a hard-hitting story.
While Tess maintains good tension, it does become a bit repetitive in translating the day-to-day routine, adding to the kitchen sink reality and distancing itself simultaneously. The third act subverts what would have been a deeply depressing and tragic ordeal, however this doesn't seem to match the tone of the rest of the film. While a welcome relief, you wonder how much more powerful and thought-provoking it could have been if they had gone colder and darker. Still, despite its shortcomings, it remains steadfast and a fine achievement all things considered.