Kate Winslet and Christopher Eccleston Bring Thomas Hardy’s Novel to Tragic Life
DIRECTED BY MICHAEL WINTERBOTTOM/1996
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: MAY 24, 2022/SCORPION RELEASING
Jude Fawley is a young man easily swayed. Swayed by bold statements about the validity of higher education, swayed by the guilt inflicted by his aunt, swayed by the confident appeal of Kate Winslet. In regard to the last one, the fella can hardly be blamed. Although, the fact that Winslet’s character, Sue Bridehead, is Jude’s (Christopher Eccleston) cousin is a bit of a rub…
…Or not? Adapted from Thomas Hardy’s final novel, 1896’s Jude the Obscure, the story plays out in a just-prior time and place when a marital union of cousins was considered acceptable. As fickle as Jude can be, Sue is full of mixed signals. As her flirtations with him grow more overt she’s increasingly as likely shut him down when he moves for more. For the longest time, it’s this cycle of frolic and heartbreak for Jude. At one point, Sue marries the older man (Liam Cunningham) who once sold Jude on the dream of attending university. All parties know in their own heart of hearts that she has made a mustache, though.
Eventually, Jude lands the worldly Sue as his partner, though her aversion to religion (echoing Thomas Hardy himself) leads her to reject the prospect of marrying a second time. Jude, meanwhile, is still legally married to Arabella (Rachel Griffiths), who up and split on him early in the story. Her specter looms over the rest of the film, culminating in her sending Jude a young boy she claims to be his son. Jude and Sue have two young children of their own, though their nomadic and unwed life make it difficult to find permanent residence. As the oldest son is told, it is because they are too many.
Then tragedy strikes. It’s the kind of tragedy that is so shattering that, as in life, it threatens to upend all that’s come before. The characters fall into turmoil; we the audience remain rattled to the end, and beyond. Although the occurrence is more dramatically motivated than it may seem, it can’t help but lump Jude in that infamous camp of movies defined by one harrowing instant, alongside films like American History X. Jude, though, deserves better. Winterbottom’s austere direction is just right for the tricky source material, delivering the hazy brown-hued movie that might be expected, but drawing us into the plight of these complex and often difficult characters. Interestingly, he begins Jude with Jude’s childhood prologue shot in a stirring black and white. Still, there is no taking this sad song and making it better.
That particular Beatles reference also can’t be resisted by the disc’s audio commentators, film historian/filmmaker Daniel Kremer and film critic Scout Tafoya. The track is an excellent low-energy examination of the film, its maker, and Hardy; chock full of lesser-known facts born out of their own research and fact-finding. The film’s trailer is also included on this satisfyingly handsome disc. Finally, Scorpion Releasing includes reversible cover art, allowing collectors to the option of two very different original one-sheets. Either way, however, the giant looming Photoshopped images of Winslet and Ecceleston have the other’s name over their head. Kind of annoying, but such is the actual artwork.
Jude is not an easy film, and Ecceleston is uncommon as the flailing title character. Even as his Jude finds his confidence as life beats him down, he remains appropriately obscure. The story, however, resonates tightly in today’s cultural environment of gig economy and shifting notions of personal faiths. For Winslet, this is a fantastically impressive resume entry, demanding all manner of character shifts and vulnerabilities. Jude destroys all, but the annihilation is not unrewarding.