Since there is such a wealth of critical opinion on Roman Polanski's TESS I thought I would just highlight some of the original and current consensus on Nastassja's performance instead of the film itself. The film achieved mostly positive to glowing reviews upon initial release and in the years since, with only a few exceptions.
Here are a few sampling of reactions to Nastassja's performance back in 1981 when the film premiered in the States, and some more current ones, positive and negative:
"In her first starring role Nastassia Kinski, whose occasional resemblance to the young Ingrid Bergman is startling, does more than might be expected of her: even the West Country accent works a lot of the time. If a certain stolidity-spiritual, not physical-rather bogs her down, she is far more than a pretty face."
-John Coleman, The New Statesman-
"Kinski plays a naive, soft spoken girl, and she has a great deal of trouble affecting the proper English accent. She is so demure that her emotional embroilment in the final sequence of the film is too low keyed, and the audience can only glean from the nature of the dialogue that Tess is tortured, almost mad, and incapable of escaping her fate."
-Melanie Wallace, Cineaste-
"The perfect full blown passivity of Kinski's mouth, needed to underscore the easy sensuality of an erstwhile peasant girl...a perfect vehicle in Kinski."
-Marsh McCreadle, Films In Review-
"Kinski is the right raw material for Hardy's Tess."
-Tom Milne, Monthly Film Bulletin-
"Kinski, a breathtaking beauty (looking like a young brunette Ingrid Bergman), becomes monotonous in her suffering."
-Judith Crist, Saturday Review-
"Polanski's leading lady, Nastassia Kinski, a truly beautiful young woman is further burdened by her attempt to speak with an authentic West Country accent. She does all right considering she is German, but her effort seems to slow her speech."
-Richard Schickle, Time-
"Kinski is a willowy vision of innocence untinctured by experience. She has the "mobile peony mouth: that Hardy ascribes to Tess, and a blinding Ingrid Bergman radiance...unfortunately Kinski's capacities as an actress are limited...she moves gracefully but somnambulantly through her part, the weakest link in TESS'S strong chain of events."
-Carrie Rickey, Village Voice-
and now David Denby who originally panned Nastassja in his December 80 review only to lighten up a bit in 1981.
"The principal problem with the movie is its star, Nastassia Kinski is a slender, beautiful girl who bears a startling facial resemblance to Ingrid Bergman, unfortunately reminding us how well Bergman would have played a doomed romantic heroine like Tess. In Brief Kinski doesn't have the range for it."
-Denby, New York 12-22-80-
"The beauty of Nastassia Kinski in Roman Polanski's TESS is so great that, at times, simply gazing upon her loveliness satisfies a moviegoers every longing. Polanski has clearly taught her a great deal...Kinski is like a young aristocrat in an 18th century painting...at the same time, her dark eyes and full, ripe lips (the lower protrudes, just slightly, in a suggestion of sensual hunger) are the features of a passionately alive woman, not a noble idea....Polanski uses her very shrewdly...her confusion is exquisite...her acting lacks flow and ease...she seems too small emotionally and spiritually, for the acts of defiance and violence Tess is called upon to commit."
"Kinski is just right for the title role. She has the youth, the freshness, and the naivete of a Tess, and none of the practiced mannerisms of an actress engaged to "interpret" the role. That's good because Tess is a character who should stick out like a sore thumb in many scenes, and Kinski's occasional shy awkwardness is just right for the story of a girl who attempts to move up in social class on sheer bravado."
-Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times-
"Although Kinski's beauty is exquisitely framed and she copes well with the characterization of the innocent country girl corrupted and discarded by polite society, her slightly German-accented English is disconcerting."
-Channel Four Film-
"The acting by Nastassja is also quite good, considering she had just learned how to speak English (German being her mother tongue) from her mentor...Nastassja also looked the part of a healthy, naturally pretty country maiden and I think the casting was very good here."
"The acting is uniformly excellent, with Nastassja Kinski's heroine an alarmingly wonderful find."
Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant-
"Even unbiased observers must admit Kinski's performance is amazing, not least for her accent (much credit to dialogue coach Kate Fleming). Her character is passive yet strong-willed, a fascinating contradiction, and her emotions flood every frame in which she appears. Spotting potential in the star of Passion Flower Hotel was a brilliant call by Polanski."
"And Kinski--a soft, European gamine--isn't rooted in the earth of England or any other country; she's a hothouse flower, who manages the West Country sounds in a small, uninfected schoolgirl voice. She's affecting and sensitive."
-Pauline Kael, The New Yorker-
"Beautiful exquisitely acted by Nastassia Kinski as Tess...What you must do is balance the extraordinary magic of Nastassja Kinski, and the effect of her beauty upon you, against the length of the long novel...Polanski has the good fortune of having Kinski in the lead. It is a performance that will stand by the side of Greta Garbo's CAMILLE and Bette Davis' OF HUMAN BONDAGE as an enduring example of a female stars in a great role."
-Archer Winsten, New York Post-
"With her dark beauty, at once patrician and earthy, Nastassja Kinksi bears and uncanny resemblance to the young Ingrid Bergman. The daughter of the great German actor Klaus Kinski does not yet have the range of a mature actress. Her performance is hushed, intimate, sotto voce. But if she does reach for peaks, she makes no false moves. There is a quiet, heartbreaking conviction in her work, and Polanski has fused her eloquently into his design."
-David Ansen, Newsweek-
Several things strike me in looking at these reviews. One of the main things is the many comparisons to Ingrid Bergman. It would be these very comparisons (to not only Bergman but Bardot, Monroe, Garbo and several others) throughout the next few years that would severely hurt Nastassja's career. These critics did a real disservice to a very talented young actress by continually comparing her to actresses that had already slipped into legendary stature. How does someone live up to being called the new Marilyn Monroe?
I am including the negative reactions, and will continue to do so, even though I highly disagree with them. I think it is important contextually to include these and I think they are finally essential in understanding one reason Nastassja's career didn't go the places it should have. I don't think the critical community as a whole was ever fair to Nastassja Kinski. It is just my opinion but her greatest work was always dogged by comparisons to either her father or some past icon...she deserved a lot better than she got in my eyes.