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'Jude': Loss of Innocents

By Lloyd Rose
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 01, 1996

You'd never guess from "Jude," the flaccid movie adaptation of "Jude the Obscure," that the unfortunate lovers were as passionate, stormy and doomed as Heathcliff and Cathy in "Wuthering Heights." Thomas Hardy's novel -- a sexually frank, anti-marriage diatribe -- raised such vitriolic criticism in the 19th century that he turned the rest of his career to the safer art of poetry. Watching the wan Christopher Eccleston as Jude and Kate Winslet as his cousin and lover Sue Bridehead, an audience might well wonder what all the fuss was about.

Or what the movie is about. Director Michael Winterbottom languidly unspools the story; nothing seems to lead to anything, episodes just unfold and then give way to other episodes. The young Jude (James Daly) is beaten by a farmer for feeding the crows he's supposed to be driving from a field. His favorite teacher, Mr. Phillotson (Liam Cunningham), sets off for Christminster and an academic career. Jude marries Arabella (Rachel Griffiths), a lusty peasant woman, but things don't work out. He goes to Christminster and falls in love with his cousin Sue, who nonetheless marries Phillotson. Jude finally persuades Sue to run away with him. Once more, things don't work out. All this takes place in a series of grim stone and brick English villages that let you know that the story is meant to be bleak, bleak, bleak. Winterbottom has let the art designer do all his work.

Arabella is the daughter of a pig farmer; she attracts Jude's attention by pitching a piece of offal at him. In the movie, this is a pig's heart. In Hardy, it was something else. The bowdlerizing of this earthy detail epitomizes what screenwriter Hossein Amini has done to the novel throughout. When Jude recoils from watching Arabella gut a pig, we have no idea that this is connected to the episode of the crows, that it's an example of his revulsion for cruelty. He just looks prissy and squeamish.

Sue's physical disgust with Phillotson and her decision to go with Jude for the sake of her sexual needs are completely obscured: She just seems frigid and neurotic. Sue, who represents for Jude the mind and the spirit, is what was known a century ago as the New Woman: She smokes and doesn't believe in God and reads books and follows her bodily and emotional instincts. Winterbottom fails so completely to re-create the social mores of the time that there's no way to understand how brave and uncompromising Sue's waywardness was. Parading up and down with a cigarette or vacillating between duty and flesh, Winslet merely seems silly and self-involved.

Eccleston has the look for Jude -- his bony, hollow-cheeked face seems pinched with spiritual deprivation. Jude the idealist strives throughout to "better himself," to escape brutality and mud and ignorance and live a heroic life of the mind and body. His failure makes "Jude the Obscure" one of the most profoundly pessimistic works in English literature (it gives "King Lear" a run for the money) and arguably the greatest book ever written about how the ordinary demands of life -- women, children, money -- can crush a man's spirit. Eccleston seems crushed from the beginning, waiflike and victimized, too darned sensitive to live. He and the equally idealistic Sue don't come across as defiant lovers but as babes in the woods, innocent children rather than sexual rebels. "Jude" denatures Hardy.

Jude is rated R.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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