Thomas Hardy wrote Jude the Obscure in the mid-1890s, and to those of us professional critics who sometimes question the efficacy of our calling, it is considerably reassuring to note that the savage reception of the book actually discouraged Hardy from producing any more novels. Later on, English majors the world over would have had cause to beam with gratitude, were it not that this corrective came twenty years and a dozen books too late. While Jude may have been obscure, Jude is not -- and more's the pity.
Hardy never had problems deciding where to set a story: He'd just stick it where the sun don't shine -- generally some unbelievably dreary corner of England where taciturn characters with IQs suggestive of massive inbreeding spend their lives head-scratching about why nothing will grow in solid granite. But because likes attract, their brains feel too strong an affinity with the rocky soil to ever consider relocating to a more hospitable environment.
Into Hardy's permanently overcast world, where an evening's light entertainment most likely involves listening to a deranged preacher condemning you to a colorfully described damnation -- and that's during sweeps week -- there are born one or two free spirits (their existence explainable only by the passing presence of itinerant salesmen from a less stagnant gene pool) with dreams and aspirations of escaping to a better life.
For a few hundred pages, Hardy relentlessly crushes those dreams and demolishes those aspirations. The bright spot is a moment when the main characters, probably a pair of lovers, appear to be close to fulfillment -- at which point Hardy deals some fateful coup de grace, even if he has to bring in alien saucers to do it. It's not enough that he have his lovers stumble in front of a train; that might make sense. No, in order to drive home the idea that life is controlled by frivolous, arbitrary forces, Hardy will have them walking in the middle of the great Grimpen Moor with nobody else within fifteen miles, and just as they are about to experience a brief moment of happiness, a bullet -- fired during some long-forgotten war and whizzing around mysteriously for several decades just looking for a target -- will sense the presence of a Hardy character and fell him on the spot. The victim's lover will then go mad and commit suicide.
Luckily, although Hardy survived a quarter-century past the invention of the airplane, he had long since abandoned the novel. Thus we were spared the inevitability of a fictive England depopulated by Coke bottles dropped out of passing Fokkers.
Michael Winterbottom's film rendition of Jude (hold the Obscure) is lovely to look at, with more genuine style than James Ivory, for instance, could have provided. It opens with some black-and-white scenes from Jude's childhood, including an aerial shot of livestock milling around, looking like the June Taylor Sheep. (Hardy har har, and away we go!) The switch to color film signals Jude's coming of age and the real start of the story.
Jude Fawley (Christopher Eccleston) is the issue of a divorced working-class couple. Raised by stern but kindly Aunt Drusilla (June Whitfield) and encouraged by schoolmaster Richard Phillotson (Liam Cunningham), he sets his sights, against all odds, on attending Christminster College. After a brief marriage to the initially manipulative Arabella (Rachel Griffiths), he meets his emancipated, strong-willed cousin Sue Bridehead (Kate Winslet) and promptly falls in love. For the next 90 minutes, Jude and Sue are repeatedly humiliated and frustrated by a combination of their own limitations and the hypocrisy of conventional society. When that double whammy isn't enough, Hardy always has a few cruel caprices of fate at the ready to screw things up even more.
For most of the movie, Winterbottom neglects to mention exactly when all this is taking place: Only in the final sequence (after at least a decade of events) are we told that it's 1889, earlier than I had assumed, given the heroine's habit of smoking cigarettes.
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Eccleston and Winslet are gloomy or lively, whenever appropriate, and Griffiths makes Arabella a character of some depth in very little screen time. Despite a few weird choices -- only in Hardyland would they play the lugubrious final chorus from Bach's St. Matthew Passion at a college graduation -- Winterbottom does about as much with the material as is possible.
Unfortunately, given that material, "as much" isn't all that much. At least the film spares us the book's conclusion, where Jude takes to drink and, according to the Oxford Companion to English Literature, "dies wretchedly, not yet thirty ... his last words [being], 'Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery, and life unto the bitter in soul?'" Of course, better you should ask, "Wherefore is the green light given to stories that are miserable? And bad enough, already, that we had to read them in high school?" Or better that somebody had cautioned Winterbottom early on: "Hey! Jude? Don't make it. Bad."
Written by Hossein Amini; based on a novel by Thomas Hardy; directed by Michael Winterbottom; with Christopher Eccleston, Kate Winslet, Liam Cunningham, and Rachel Griffiths.