Jude (United Kingdom/United States, 1996)
One hallmark of great cinema is that, even when the story is tragic, a viewer can leave the theater both reflective and satisfied. Jude, Michael Winterbottom's ambitious, big-screen adaptation of Thomas Hardy's heartbreaking classic, Jude the Obscure, fits perfectly into that category. This is a film of tremendous scope and emotional depth that uncovers the soul of a novel and brings it to life on the screen.
In every way that matters, Jude is faithful to its print inspiration. The rhythm of some of the dialogue has been changed to make it sound more natural to contemporary viewers, and a number of minor characters have been deleted, but the story arc is rigorously true to Hardy's vision. One of the great strengths of the novel is that it centers on two believable, sympathetic characters. Jude effectively captures not only their humanity, but their uniqueness, fashioning a delicate rapport between them and the audience.
For a widescreen period piece, Jude is surprisingly subtle in presenting its setting. Any time you study the background, you'll be confronted with all the appropriate late-19th century surroundings, but the film is so deeply character-oriented that its easy to forget that we're looking back in time. With one very important exception, there are no scenes designed to specifically highlight time and place.
That lone exception happens early in the film. Young Jude (James Daley) has accompanied his beloved school teacher, Phillotson (Liam Cunningham), to the top of a hill outside his town of Marygreen. Phillotson is traveling to Christminster to become a scholar, and, with Jude by his side to bid him farewell, he points out the distant place, shimmering and gleaming on the horizon like Camelot. This vision becomes a driving force in Jude's life. Though he grows up to be a stone mason by trade, his dream is of scholarship, so he spends long hours studying, hoping eventually to follow Phillotson.
Years later, in the wake of a failed marriage to a pig farmer's daughter (Rachel Griffiths), Jude (now played by Christopher Eccleston) finally journeys to Christminster. And, although he fails in his quest for admission to a university, he meets his beautiful, young cousin, Sue Bridehead (Kate Winslet), a modern woman who refuses to be governed by religious superstitions. As she and Jude spend time together, they fall hopelessly in love. But, because they can never marry, the pressures of society doom their relationship. (In fact, it was Hardy's harsh condemnation of society's intransigence, in addition to his sexual frankness, that caused such a stir when Jude the Obscure first reached the public.)
Jude couldn't have been more perfectly cast. Christopher Eccleston (Shallow Grave) develops Jude as a somewhat naive dreamer who is forever chasing an elusive image of happiness. For a while, that's the existence of a scholar, then, for the bulk of the film, it's a life with Sue. Eccleston gets us to care about Jude, a development that is critical to the film's success. His chemistry with his leading lady, Kate Winslet, is electric. When Phillotson says of Jude and Sue, "Sometimes I think [those] two are one person split in two", we believe him. Their initial sexual encounter is both funny and touching.
For her part, Winslet is luminous. The film makers indicate that they chose her because she's "easy to fall in love with", but the strength of her performance far outstrips her natural charisma. Winslet was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in 1995's Sense and Sensibility; what she does for Sue in Jude is both more sublime and more noteworthy.
Liam Cunningham (A Little Princess) plays Phillotson as a tragic, but never pathetic, figure. Rachel Griffiths, who won international attention and acclaim for her role as Rhonda in Muriel's Wedding, brings a similar zest to Arabella, the partner in Jude's ill-fated marriage. Veteran actress June Whitfield (of the British sit-com Absolutely Fabulous) is delightful as Jude's aging aunt, who's never short of advice.
The emotional intensity of Jude rivals that of films like Carrington and The Remains of the Day. The honesty of the story and the faithfulness of the production are two key factors why. But top notch production values and strong performances aren't the only reasons for Jude's success. More important than even these critical elements is the universality of the sad, unforgettable love story that Thomas Hardy first told, and Michael Winterbottom has so effectively re-interpreted.
Jude (United Kingdom/United States, 1996)
Cast: Christopher Eccleston, Kate Winslet, Liam Cunningham, Rachel Griffiths, June Whitfield
Screenplay: Hossein Amini based on Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
Cinematography: Eduardo Serra
Music: Adrian Johnston
U.S. Distributor: Gramercy Pictures