Tess is a naïve country girl who is thrust into events beyond her control. And, in one of her first big roles, Gemma Arterton brings the exact right blend of blossoming "English rose" beauty and luminous innocence to the part, completely embodying one of literature's most tragic heroines. Arterton is so good here, that she can yank on our emotions with the merest glance or pensive turn of the head. In short, she's heartbreaking, which is exactly what Thomas Hardy would have wanted.
His face may be known the world over these days, but in Tess of the D'Urbervilles we see Eddie Redmayne just before he broke into mega-stardom. And it's not much of an exaggeration to say the future Oscar winner was born to play a role like Angel Clare. The aching sincerity, the oozing idealism, the light linen clothing... it's all perfect for Redmayne, who gives us one of the most delicate and fragile leading men in any romantic drama we can remember.
Isn't Ruth Jones one of the most chameleonic performers on television? From playing a baffled sidekick in dark sitcom Nighty Night, to deadpan Nessa in Gavin & Stacey, to spunky Stella in her most recent hit, she's always unpredictable. Tess of the D'Urbervilles is a case in point - Ruth Jones looks almost unrecognizably downtrodden and mumsy in the role. Which is pretty appropriate since she does indeed play Tess's downtrodden mum, whose ambitions for her daughter only make things worse.
With his impeccably sculpted, darkly handsome features, Hans Matheson is as well suited to playing the wicked libertine Alec D'Urberville as Eddie Redmayne is to playing the more angelic man in Tess's life. Matheson, who previously starred in another epic adaptation (Doctor Zhivago) and has since found new stardom in Jericho, makes a suitably sinister seducer in Tess of the D'Urbervilles - a man whose rampant appetites know no bounds.
A great veteran of the big and small screens, Anna Massey was once described by legendary critic Kenneth Tynan as the woman "of the beseeching face and shining eyes". She also caught the attention of great filmmakers, appearing in the classic thriller Peeping Tom, as well as Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy. Well used to playing alongside nasty characters, she makes a fine Mrs D'Urberville, the aloof mother of Alec, who cares more about her animals than the humans around her.
Who is the person who puts the dark, stormy events of the story into motion? It's not Tess, Alec or Angel. It's not any of their parents either. It's a local parson, who happens to casually inform Tess's father that their family is connected to the aristocratic D'Urbervilles. That's what sets everything off. In the role of this unwitting accomplice to disaster is Donald Sumpter, and if you don't know the name you'll definitely know the strong-featured face. This veteran actor has been in everything from Our Friends in the North to The Queen's Nose to Game of Thrones.
Having previously starred alongside Gemma Arterton in St Trinian's, Jodie Whittaker is reunited with her in the role of Izz - another rural beauty who works alongside Tess on the lush green landscape that forms the backdrop of this sweeping drama. She also happens to have eyes for Angel Clare (as do all the milkmaids by the looks of things), though being a decent sort she also has an eye out for Tess's well-being. And if anyone needs a guardian angel, Tess does.