Jude (1996)

Directed by: Michael Winterbottomjude-movie-poster-1996-1010472794

Written by: Hossein Amini, based on Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

In her ongoing quest to expose me to the most brutally depressing movies possible, a few weeks after persuading me to watch Tyrannosaur, my daughter Sarah introduced me to Jude. This adaptation of Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy features memorable performances by Christopher Eccleston (before he got a Tardis), Rachel Griffiths (Hilary and Jackie), and Kate Winslet.

Raised by his aunt in Victorian England, young Jude Fawley dreams of becoming a university scholar. He’s inspired by his teacher, who tells him if he studies hard, he can shape his own future

. Jude becomes a stonemason while pursuing his studies every free moment he gets. He is both an industrious working man and an accomplished autodidact, working toward his dream of moving to Christminster and matriculating at the University.

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I’d like to tell you this is an uplifting story of a young man overcoming the overwhelming odds against rising above his social class in nineteenth-century England. However, if you’re familiar with the works of Thomas Hardy, an author whose novels are frequently pimped out by English teachers as strong examples of naturalism and Victorian social realism, you already know better. By the way, though I’ve read several other Hardy novels, I’ve never read Jude the Obscure. It was on my high school reading list, but I never got around to it. So I was not fully prepared for the slam-you-in-the-gut brutality of this story. And I understand the movie is actually a bit gentler than the novel.

Getting back to the story: young Jude is absorbed in teaching himself Greek and Latin, but he does have prurient interests. Who doesn’t? So he’s easily distracted after his first love, Arabella, captures his attention by throwing a pig’s heart at him. An unusual method of courtship, methinks, but not entirely surprising in a Hardy novel. Arabella seems sweet and passionate, but she and Jude are not well matched. When fate offers him a second chance to shed his old life and move to Christminster, he falls in love with his scholarly, spirited cousin Sue Brideshead.

Sue has difficulty staying in society’s good graces. She is that most terrifying of all creatures in Victorian England: a highly intelligent, independent, freethinking woman. For reasons you will discover, Jude and Sue are unable to marry. However, they are drawn together by an intense bond, and eventually they live together as husband and wife. Their loving and very flawed relationship — which is developed subtly without fireworks and simmering chemistry — is the heart of this film.

It is worth mentioning the scene in which Kate Winslet goes full frontal, and not just because some of my readers might like seeing boobs. 😉 This particular scene is more uncomfortable than titillating. As Adam Mars Jones points out in his review, her nudity reflects intense vulnerability. Sue and Jude are on the verge of becoming pariahs for their sins, due to the rigid mores of their culture, yet they struggle with fear, awkwardness and confusion. As Jones so aptly put it: “They live in a society where you can be a moral outcast and still a virtual stranger to your flesh.” There’s something incredibly poignant about that.

This is a difficult but worthwhile film. It is appropriately bleak yet aesthetically beautiful, with pale landscapes and a richly developed sense of time and place. All the performances are excellent. However the most memorable aspect of the movie, by far, is Christopher Eccleston’s portrayal of Jude. As a young man, he is convincingly hopeful and innocent, and throughout the movie there is an exceptionally raw quality to his ever-increasing agony. His character will be unforgettable for me.

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