Michael Winterbottom’s 1996 Jude, based on Thomas Hardy’s 1895 novel Jude the Obscure, is the most beautiful film I’ve seen in quite a while. The English countryside (which is sometimes the Scottish countryside or the New Zealand countryside, since the locations on which Thomas Hardy’s fiction Wessex are based were judged to have become too developed to pass for Victorian England) has seldom looked better than when seen through the lens of cinematographer Eduardo Serra, and even the opening black and white segment, meant to convey the harshness of young Jude’s (James Daley) rural environment, is strangely beautiful. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that, if you love Thomas Hardy’s novel (considered scandalous in its day), or if you generally resent complex stories being turned into eye candy that could pass for the latest Nicholas Sparks adaptation, you may find yourself resenting this film in a way that spoils the pleasures it does offer. Hardy’s novel, which some feel to be more than a bit autobiographical, places its characters firmly in a social and political context that is largely missing from this film. Instead, Winterbottom and screenwriter Hossein Amini imagine Jude’s story as largely the result of individual decision-making, while their surroundings resemble a scrubbed-up living history museum designed to omit any mention of matters such as poverty, crime or even bad teeth. The result is that the central characters come to resemble self-centered adolescents from a contemporary rom-com, whose only problems are the obstacles that prevent them from hooking up with the person of their dreams.
Jude (Christopher Eccleston) is a working-class boy in rural Victorian England who wishes to study at university. His dreams are encouraged by the local schoolmaster, Philotson (Liam Cunningham), and Jude diligently studies his Latin and Greek while keeping up with his farm chores and later his work as a stonemason. But he’s also subject to the temptations of the flesh, in the person of a pretty working-class girl named Arabella (Rachel Griffiths). When Arabella finds herself pregnant, they marry; when the pregnancy turns out to be a false alarm, she takes off for Australia, leaving Jude free to pursue his dreams once again.
Jude moves to the nearby town of Christminster, where he intends to enroll at the university; that initiative flops, but he does hit it off with his freethinking cousin Sue Brideshead (Kate Winslet). But she marries Philotson, because this is the kind of film where there are only about five people in the entire world, and when that marriage fails, Sue and Jude become an unmarried couple, valuing their feelings above the moral strictures of their times.
What Jude misses by being so darned pretty is any sense of the magnitude of the harshness of Victorian society towards anyone, particularly women, whose life didn’t conform to the expected pieties. A few difficulties obtaining lodgings is hardly the extent of it, while dismissal from a teachers’ training college, closing of one of the few vocational pathways available to an educated woman at the time, would hardly have been shrugged off as it is in this film. Similarly, any sense of the grind of rural poverty and of working-class labor is largely absent after the opening sequence, and the famous pig-killing scene that is so horrifying in the book is toned down in this film to the point where its meaning is lost.
In truth, I don’t hate Jude, I just wish it grappled more with Hardy’s novel and was less content with to settle for superficial charms. At the end of its 123 minutes, you may feel you’ve been watching a series of picture postcards come to life, so well-executed are the technical elements. Jude wasn’t a huge hit upon first release, which may explain why Serra received little recognition for his work on it (he has been nominated for Oscars for two other film and won a BAFTA for his work on The Wings of the Dove). Similarly, the efforts of production designer Joseph Bennett, art director Andrew Rothschild, and costume designer Janty Yates garnered nothing at awards time, although it would be hard to find a flaw in any of their work. It’s my theory that the halo effect plays a large role in such awards: since most voters have little knowledge about matters like costume design, they tend to vote for people working on big films that are already attracting a lot of attention. | Sarah Boslaugh
Jude is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include an audio commentary by film historian and filmmaker Daniel Kremer and film critic Scout Tafoya, and the film’s trailer.