The Latest Classic Novel To Hit The Screen Follows The Usual Formula.
By Stacey Richter
BRITISH ACCENTS, SWEEPING vistas, rustling skirts, squealing pigs, heaving bosoms--it's amazing how consistent period movies are these days. Jude, an adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, takes the 19th century, with its surplus of coal smoke and horseshit, and turns it into a pretty, drizzling, sexually tempestuous time when men and women roamed the countryside, getting laid.
The title character (Christopher Eccleston) is a gangly, stork-like man who lives among rough country folk but dreams of being "a university man." He reads Latin and Greek and walks around the lovely English countryside with his ears sticking out, reciting poetry. He meets a fiery country girl who throws a pig's heart at him, then whips off her clothes. Jude marries her, but he doesn't love her. Although the movie is more than two hours long, it gallops along at an enjoyable pace, and the next thing we know, the wife is gone and Jude has met the love of his life, a cousin, Sue (Kate Winslet). Their devotion to each other grows, but of course, they can't marry, since Jude is already hitched. In a fit Sue marries someone else herself, but the two can't keep their hands off one another and eventually they decide to live together, bucking the conventions of the day.
Through all of this we are treated to plenty of flesh and plunging bodices. I don't want to sound prudish, but what is it with "arty" period films? It seems like those movies that should be the natural choice to take one's grandmother to turn out to be the ones filled with groping and grunting. Are we that nostalgic for repression? Jude just makes the matter more confusing, because it's a message movie, and the message it delivers is this: The church, and the stringent morality of Victorian times, are malignant forces that crush true love and religious feeling. This is not exactly a hot topic for 1997.
Kate Winslet is excellent as the flighty Sue, a woman who longs to be a free spirit but can't shake off the spiteful, straight-laced morality of her times. She's alternately warm and bitchy, and it's easy to see why Jude, a backwoods country boy yearning to be an intellectual, would find her endlessly exotic and enticing. More difficult to understand is Sue's affection for Jude, a role that Eccleston never quite brings to life. Jude is cuter than her other boyfriends, but he's also slow and over-earnest and stares at her like a caged puppy at the Humane Society. There's none of the brooding passion of The English Patient; the two seem more like siblings than lovers. Despite a cute scene in which Winslet takes off every stitch of clothing she has on, as a love story, Jude is something of a failure.
What director Michael Winterbottom excels at, instead, is creating an atmosphere of vague religious resonance. Thus, we have Jude and Sue, with an infant in her arms, being turned away from inn after inn in the pouring rain, resembling nothing less than the holy family. Furthermore, despite the rhetoric against the church, morality, etc., it does seem like the characters in this story are basically punished for having sex, and that their happiest times coincide with periods of chastity. I found all this odd and annoying and as pointless as any action movie. It seemed like Jude wasn't even trying to have any relevance for our times, aside from providing some literary value, which would obviously be better served by reading the book (something I haven't done).
Despite its pointlessness, Jude isn't really all that bad. It's well shot, with brief, pithy little scenes that accumulate nicely to tell the story. Occasionally Winterbottom allows himself to slide into hopeless sentimentality, as when he cuts together a little collage of all of Sue's happy times (the cinematic equivalent of the '70s ditty, Seasons in the Sun) so that we can see just how far she's fallen. Besides these few brief digressions, the film is pretty and well-paced, and if you get bored with the English lit angle, just remember the film is "rated R for strong sexuality and intense depictions of death and birth." Something racy is just around the corner.
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