A stonemasons pursuit of a better intellectual life and his free-spirited cousin is hampered by tragedy.
Thomas Hardy’s eleventh and bleakest novel, Jude The Obscure, was so harshly received by critics and public alike that he never wrote another. Turning it into a piece of cinema is therefore hardly without risk. Winterbottom’s film, then, is a brave, powerful, far from comfortable and distinctly English affair that bears all the hallmarks of a labour of love rather than an example of intellectual folly.
Jude tells the tale of a 19th Century stonemason who attempts to rise above his rural roots and earn a place at the university of Christminster where he plans to emulate his old schoolmaster and childhood hero Phillotson. Jude’s plans are interrupted by a short marriage to a pig farmer’s daughter Arabella but on separation he moves to Christminster to resume his studies. But then he meets and falls in love with his cousin Sue Bridehead and his life goes downhill. After Jude has persuaded Phillotson to give Sue a job, she falls in love with the older man – and Jude loses her and the hope of a university place when Christminster rejects him. Then, as he and Sue remain in touch, he tells her of Arabella and in a fit of anger she rejects him and marries Phillotson. But love conquers all, and so Jude and Sue reunite to face all the prejudices and pressures of their world, fighting to keep the flickering flame of happiness alight. Those expecting a happy ending are in for a horrible, heart-rending shock. Those expecting a grim, unrelenting siphon of human suffering are less likely to be disappointed - not even the sterling turn by June Whitfield as Jude’s Aunt Drusilla can inject any light relief. But the film’s success lies in the two leads. Winslet gives an impressively mature portrayal of a woman strong enough to flout society’s rules, seemingly reveling in the chance to strip herself (literally at one point) of all glamour and rely only on the power of her performance. And yet for all her post Titanic pulling power, it is the shoulders of Eccleston that bear the millstone weight of Jude. To that task he is more than equal, his performance shining through all the misery like a beacon on a stormy night. It seems he was *born* to play Hardy’s quasibiographical Jude, empathizing with is fiercely determined and independent character as perhaps only an actor as single-minded as he could do.
This is as gruelling and heart-rending as the novel but the superb cast manage to make the suffering compelling.