Monday, October 1, 2012

Heavy Jude: "Jude" (1996)

Over one hundred years ago, Thomas Hardy experienced critical backlash against his novel "Jude the Obscure" and never wrote another novel. This film version is also controversial, but definitely worth a look.

This stars Christopher Eccleston in the title role as a stonemason who yearns for higher learning and a better life. Eccleston's portrayal of Jude is excellent in that he is no Hollywood pretty boy. His ears are too big and his face sallow, but his expressions and gaunt look help his performance immensely, especially in the latter half of the film. Too bad the audience is left in the dark about what exactly makes his character tick.

Jude's cousin, Sue, is played by Kate Winslet. She brings a professionalism to her role that almost overshadows Eccleston. Every nuance of her work here does not seem calculated, but very natural.

Jude's wife, Arabella, who leaves him, but keeps popping back into his life over and over again, is played by Rachel Griffiths. Her character is a major flaw in the film. Gothicism was fading in the time this novel was written; readers were experiencing more realistic situations in novels by the likes of Charles Dickens, or fantastic situations in novels by H.G. Wells. Arabella seems old hat in a period film. When she is introduced, the scene is full of sunshine and Utopian bliss. Throughout the film, she appears in black widow's wear, striking a contrast against gray backgrounds and the forced happiness of Jude and Sue. This role screamed for a more intense actress along the lines of Nicole Kidman or Emily Watson. Griffiths does not have the presence needed. Any other actress would have taken the part and sunk her teeth into it, but Griffiths comes across as a pitiful old maid without a thought in her head. In the beginning of the film, in her cutesy courtship with Jude, another actress may have appeared whimsical and innocent, Griffiths plays Arabella like a moron.

The director is well known in British and art house circles. His direction is expert, and different from other adaptations of long English novels. Winterbottom uses filmed captions to let the viewer know where Jude's travels take him. The film opens during Jude's childhood, and Winterbottom shoots the entire sequence in black and white, evoking antiquated romantic memories of childhood. The screenwriter, Hossein Amini, and Winterbottom load the film with too much sex (if possible), after a while it almost overshadows the plot and characters. The musical score and set design are marvelous and I would highly recommend this film to others, but maybe not as a study aid for Thomas Hardy-reading high school students. "Jude" has plenty of raw emotion (including the stinging fate of Sue and Jude's children), but Jude's character remains, pardon the pun, obscure.

There is something great here, despite the flaws. (* * * * *) out of five stars.