Director : Michael Winterbottom
Screenplay : Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1996
Stars : Christopher Eccleston (Jude Fawley), Kate Winslet (Sue Bridehead), Liam Cunningham (Phillotson), Rachel Griffiths (Arabella), June Whitfield (Jude's Aunt), Ross Colvin Turnbull (Little Jude), James Daley (Jude as a Boy), Berwick Kaler (Farmer Troutham)
If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: "Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love's loss is my hate's profiting!"
The above words are the opening verse of a poem entitled "Hap," written by Thomas Hardy, the English novelist and poet whose novel, Jude the Obscure, is the basis of Michael Winterbottom's film version, titled simply Jude. Those lines of verse, which are his plea for a higher power to give purpose to all the suffering on earth, explain much about Hardy's outlook on life. His common themes were that of poor, ordinary people battered by forces outside their control. In Hardy's novels and in his poetry, characters are the mercy of fate, and irony is supreme.
It is important to understand Hardy's outlook before seeing Jude. To the uninitiated, this film will seem like a depressing, pointless experience meant only to drag the viewer into pessimistic darkness. Jude the Obscure is certainly one of Hardy's darkest novels, if not his darkest; in fact, the uproar that followed its publication was so intense that Hardy never wrote another novel. However, while the story of Jude is one of tragedy and sadness, it is still a great tale of human endurance and the courage of ordinary people to fight against systems built against them.
The titular character is Jude Fawley (Christopher Eccleston), an idealistic stonemason from a small, English village in the late 1800s who dreams of someday studying at Christminster (a fictional version of Oxford). When he is a young boy, Jude's schoolmaster, Phillotson (Liam Cunningham), tells him that if he ever wants to get anywhere in life, that is where he needs to go.
Jude's plans of becoming a scholar are temporarily sidetracked when he marries Arabella (Rachel Griffiths), a pig farmer's daughter who he thinks is pregnant. After a short marriage, she tells him she isn't pregnant after all and leaves him for Australia (or so she says). Jude then travels to Christminster, where he falls in love with his cousin, a rule-breaking free spirit named Sue Bridehead (Kate Winslet). Jude and Sue seem perfect for each other, and at this point in the film, there seems to be the genuine possibility of happiness for its characters. Not so.
Because the English educational system tends to look down on working-class citizens, Jude is rejected for admission to Christminster. Along the way, he introduces Sue to Phillotson, who is now working as a schoolmaster since his dreams of being a Christminster scholar have also been thwarted. When Jude admits to Sue that he is still technically married to Arabella, she marries Phillotson instead, although it turns out to be a loveless marriage.
It isn't long before Sue leaves Phillotson for Jude, but because they are both married to other people, they have to live together in sin. This, in effect, makes them outcasts in the strictly religious, traditional English society. If that were the worst thing to happen to them, life would not be so bad. However, what then follows is an unending cascade of disturbing tragedies that forever alters their lives and damages their love for each other beyond repair.
Jude is an affecting tragedy because, like all great tragedies, it involves believable, sympathetic characters. Winterbottom's film version benefits immensely from its extremely talented cast of actors.
Christopher Eccleston (Shallow Grave) turns in a stunning central performance that holds the film together. His Jude is an endearing, idealistic man whose central core is good, but has the bad misfortune of being trapped in a period of time that is not kind to him. In another age, Jude might have been the great scholar he so desperately dreamed of (and was capable of) being; numerous scenes show him diligently studying his Latin and Greek, and the film never once suggests that he lacks the intellect or the drive to make it. The only thing holding him back is an unbending society.
As Sue, Kate Winslet (Sense and Sensibility, Titanic) is a marvel. Like Jude, her Sue is also a spirit that is crushed by forces outside her power. However, in some ways, hers is a more shining star, and thus a greater tragedy when it is snuffed out. Jude's dreams, however idealistic, are still rooted in being part of the traditional society of intelligentsia, the same society that shuns his social standing. Sue, on the other hand, seems almost above it all. She seems to be composed only of feeling and emotion, and this often causes her to be stubborn about defending her beliefs. When she and Jude are living in sin, she refuses to even pretend they are married in order to secure lodging for the night. Therefore, at the end of the film when she is on her knees in a church, pale and defeated, murmuring, "It is right that I suffer," we feel the true loss of her humanity.
In addition the fine performances, Jude features absorbing cinematography by Eduardo Serra (The Wings of the Dove) and meticulous production design by Joseph Bennett. Unlike some of the Merchant-Ivory films with which Jude is likely to get lumped, Serra's photography does not call undue attention to itself. Instead, it helps create and hold the mood of each scene; as Jude and Sue's lives gradually crumble, Serra's photography becomes darker, with deeper shades of blue and gray to symbolize the harsh reality of life. Notice how he films Christminster—tall, dark, foreboding stone buildings that literally mock Jude in his failure to penetrate them.
The screenplay by Hossein Amini does cause Jude some problems, however. Although he effectively manages to streamline Hardy's novel while still maintaining the major narrative thrust and tone, the screenplay has trouble making bridges between particular time periods (the film spans at least three decades). It often jumps quickly between months and even years, and it's several minutes before we figure out how much time has passed. Ironically, the film uses fade-to-black on a number of occasions, but not always to signify significant passages of time, as one might expect. In fact, a jump cut is a better signifier that a year has passed.
Overall, Jude is a finely wrought, if sometimes hard-to-watch film. Winterbottom is extremely naturalistic in bringing the film to life, refusing to spare the viewers sights such as the graphic slaughter and gutting of a pig, bloody childbirth, the death of old and young alike, and surprisingly frank, sometimes awkward sexuality.
At the same time, he also gives us scenes of pure human joy between people who love each other, which offsets some of the unpleasantness. Like Hardy, Winterbottom is not so easily labeled a pessimist. He wants us to realize that his film is showing us life as Hardy saw it—full of ugliness, pain, and suffering, but never so bad that it couldn't be improved by simple human effort.
Copyright © 1998 James Kendrick