Jude (1996) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
Director Michael Winterbottom really has a thing for
Thomas Hardy. He directed Jude, an interpretation of Hardy's "Jude
the Obscure", and then followed up four years later with The Claim, another
Hardy story ("The Mayor of Casterbridge") re-imagined in an American
mining town in the 19th century. They are both good films, and they
are both faithful to the original stories, to the extent that any
long and complex novel can be adequately represented in a two hour
These interpretations have earned Winterbottom a lot of respect in literary circles and among those who love filmed literature, but are not going to be his ticket to wealth and fame, because the number of ticket buyers in those literary groups is small indeed. Jude grossed only $405,000 in the vast United States market, and The Claim grossed an uncannily similar $404,000.
Of course, these novels weren't doing a lot for Thomas Hardy either. Many of his works were unpopular with the critics of his time, and Jude the Obscure was the least popular of all. A small, discriminating group of reviewers praised it, but in general it was panned so harshly and so vituperatively that Hardy turned to poetry and never wrote another novel, despite living another three decades.
If it was difficult for 19th century critics to endure Hardy, it is far more difficult for 21st century readers. In essence, he brought the grand themes of Greek tragedy to Victorian Dorsetshire, yet neither Greek Tragedy nor Victorian rurals are among today's most popular or most easily understood literary subjects. It was Hardy's belief that novels should be bigger than life - more eloquent, more complicated, more emotional, more sensational, more melodramatic. Above all, Hardy's vision of the novel required the action to be more connected and neater than life. The details and characters not only needed to be neatly intertwined, but all that twine had to get tied up into a neat little ball at the end, in order to offer the kind of closure rarely offered in real life stories. As a result of his now dated vision of the nature of a novel, Hardy seems old-fashioned to us for many reasons: his characters often speak in archaic provincial dialects, his plotting seems too implausible even by lax 19th century standards, and his themes seem too grand in scope and frankly just too damned depressing for the humble lives he portrays.
The film version of Jude is saddled with all that baggage. Our hero is a humble worker who studies Latin and Greek on his own because he wants to make something of himself. He amasses some impressive classical scholarship but the class system holds him back, and the great English Universities will not even give him a chance. He unwisely marries the first woman who pays attention to him, and this marriage haunts him the rest of his life. He then falls in love with his brilliant cousin and has two children with her while he is still technically married to his first wife. Society refuses to accept the relationship of the cousins, and this leads to tragedy after tragedy. Imagine the worst things that can happen to a man, and the things you imagine will probably happen to poor Jude eventually.
My very short version of all this is that the movie is very good but very depressing. I mean this is a real bummer. It will absolutely test the amount of tragedy you can endure. Without spoiling the plot for you, I can't even hint as to exactly how depressing it is, but take my word for it that if you don't like that kind of movie, this is absolutely not for you. You have been warned.
(The movie actually has a happy ending compared to the original book, since the screenplay stopped before Jude's own wretched death and wake! But tragedy lovers can take heart in knowing that the movie's characters can expect no better fortune in their later lives! If you want to get the full "spoiler" treatment, you can read the entire book online for free. See the link below under "miscellaneous.")
I will speak now with the people who do like these sorts of serious literary adaptations. Someday you will want to have this film in your collection, because it is a good adaptation, it is performed beautifully, and the cinematography is exquisite. However ... there is no Region 1 DVD, and you do NOT want the current Region 2 DVD. The best thing about this film is its visual appeal - great locations photographed magnificently to recreate the feel of 19th century Wessex. Unfortunately, this DVD only includes a full screen version of the film in a 4:3 TV aspect ratio. If it were a full 35mm negative version, I would not complain, but this is a pan 'n scan version with the sides of heads cut off in two-shots, and other similar problems. I would like to own a properly mastered widescreen anamorphic DVD of this film, but I don't expect one to be available soon simply because there is no great economic demand for it. Today's DVD producers have plenty of profitable projects backlogged, and there is no urgent reason to interrupt those plans to work on a film which grossed $400,000, and is not likely to perform much better on DVD. If anyone does do it, it will have to be a labor of love with a minimal expectation of financial reward, unless it could be marketed based on the full frontal nudity from a young and ripe Kate Winslet.
Sigh. The bottom line is that Jude is a worthwhile "small audience" movie that I am simply not recommending for anyone at this time.
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