The most striking aspect of "Jude," Michael Winterbottom's handsome, uncompromising film of Thomas Hardy's 1896 novel "Jude the Obscure," is simply that it's in English. As a period piece it is as superb as any Merchant Ivory production, but in its bleak vision of life it has far more in common with Claude Berri's film of Emile Zola's "Germinal" than with the current cycle of Jane Austen movies.
"Jude" takes its time in involving us with Jude Fawley (Christopher Eccleston) and Sue Bridehead (Kate Winslet). Jude is a diffident bookworm of a country boy with a burning desire for a university education. By the time he and his cousin Sue, an outspoken free spirit who wants to be a teacher, meet as adults and eventually acknowledge that their profound emotional and intellectual bonds cannot be denied, each has fled an ill-advised marriage. At the moment they decide to live as man and wife, they are still full of hope--never mind that Jude's dream of a higher education has been derailed by the need for him to support himself as a stone mason. But as the children start coming, coupled with Sue's determination to proclaim their lack of a marriage certificate, the couple commence a relentless downward spiral that culminates shockingly. ("Jude" is an instance when it's better to be unfamiliar with the book before seeing it.)
"Jude" on one level indicts Victorian society and traditional religion for judging harshly Jude and Sue, for whom both birth control and divorce from their legal spouses seem so out of the question in 1880s England that neither subject is ever mentioned.
Beyond this, however, "Jude" expresses with dark eloquence Hardy's profoundly pessimistic view of life, which not only is timeless but also strikes a strong sense of recognition in the downsizing 1990s as countless young couples struggle to make ends meet. Jude and Sue learn the hardest ways possible how naive their dreams are in being able to live a life of the spirit and the intellect when you have no money and few prospects.
Not surprisingly for a British film, "Jude" glows with Eccleston's and Winslet's performances and with those in supporting roles. Winslet, who received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Marianne in "Sense and Sensibility," is a vibrant Sue, a woman of great courage and equal folly, while Eccleston's Jude ultimately proves more resilient, refusing to give in to the overwhelming Protestant guilt engulfing Sue.
The dark, steel engraving look that cinematographer Eduardo Serra has given "Jude" endows it with a somber magnificence. To see "Jude" when you're used to seeing a constant flow of Asian and European epics of defeat and survival is to realize how protective the distancing of subtitles can be. Jude and Sue, however, speak our language, they could be the forebears of many of us, and they could be ourselves.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong sexuality and intense depictions of death and birth. Times guidelines: Beyond elements in the rating description, the film overall is simply too stark and depressing for children.
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Christopher Eccleston: Jude
Kate Winslet: Sue Bridehead
Liam Cunningham: Phillotson
Rachel Griffiths: Arabella
A Gramercy Pictures release. Director Michael Winterbottom. Producer Andrew Eaton. Executive producers Stewart Till, Mark Shivas. Screenplay by Hossein Amini; based on the novel "Jude the Obscure" by Thomas Hardy. Cinematographer Eduardo Serra. Editor Trevor Waite. Costumes Janty Yates. Music Adrian Johnston. Production designer Joseph Bennett. Art director Andrew Rothschild. Set decorator Judy Farr. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.
* At the Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (213) 848-3500; AMC Century 14, Century City, (310) 553-8900; and Town Center 4, Bristol at Anton, South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa, (714) 751-4184.