One thing you could never accuse Michael Winterbottom of is sentimentalism. The British director of “Welcome to Sarejevo,” “24 Hour Party People,” “A Mighty Heart,” and those hilarious “The Trip” movies with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon specializes in dramas of unadorned, harsh truth and comedies just dripping with cynicism.
His period pieces show us a past of stark beauty, difficult lives where the ugliness isn’t hidden behind Empire waistlines, stunning scenery and “quaint” romanticized mores and struggles to get by.
“Jude,” his adaptation of the last novel of Thomas Hardy, is an unblinking plunge into Victorian prudishness, selfishness, hypocrisy and classism — postcard pretty people and settings filled with the ugliness of animal slaughter, the bloodiness of childbirth and the harsh realities Dickens saw and somewhat sugar-coated, but not Hardy. It’s very obviously the work of the filmmaker who stripped the romance of the Alaskan Gold Rush in “The Claim” and mocked the oversexed and unsanitary world of the rogue “Tristram Shandy.”
The author of “Far from the Madding Crowd,” “The Mayor of Casterbridge,” “The Return of the Native” and “Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” finished his long form fiction career with a story of a farm lad who aspires to a life of letters, and the obstacles his either discards — an inappropriate marriage — or cannot surmount as he pursues it and the free spirit he settles down to a life of shame, struggle and tragedy with as he loses his way.
Biographers see a hint of Hardy’s own life in “Jude.” Winterbottom saw a blunt condemnation of Victorianism and all but marches through the story, often in quick lurches, to get it all into this, one of his earliest films.
A black and white prologue captures the primitive world young Jude Fawley is born into and makes little attempt to reconcile himself with from the start. A beloved teacher (Liam Cunningham) departs, and points to distant Christminster (Oxford) as his goal, to study languages and literature and live a more lofty life. That becomes the orphaned working class lad’s goal.
Future Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston plays Jude as a young man, absorbed in books, deep into his Latin and Greek and longing to make the journey his mentor made. But the saucy, sexy Arabella (Rachel Griffiths) gets in the way. Nothing like lobbing a pig’s heart into his lap to break up his brookside idyll and tease Jude into literal rolls in the hay.
Aunt Drusilla (June Whitfield), who raised him, should probably have made this point before the untimely union.
“Frawleys are not cut-out for marriage.”
Jude figures that out when he flees to that aunt after a particularly gruesome bit of business Arabella has to handle almost single-handed, butchering a pig. The wife figures out the mismatch and announces she’s leaving for Australia to start over. Jude drifts away to Christminster and plots his entry to university while working as a stone mason.
The rigid class system rejects his application to move up in class by attending university. But as consolation, he meets the orphaned cousin he never knew, Sue Bridehead. As she’s played by Kate Winslet, he’s hopelessly smitten and willing to ignore his fellow masons’ “What’s the law saying about marrying cousins?” jabs.
But does she share his ardor?
Like a lot of filmmakers faced with a novel of daunting length and dense texture, Winterbottom makes a deft waltz through the early chapters of this life journey only to, by necessity, jump and skip and stumble through the later ones.
Eccleston makes a more sturdy than stirring lead, whose best moment may be a tipsy recitation, in Latin, before students and stone masons drinking in a public house. Who eggs him on? Why, it’s another “future Doctor Who,” the sparkling David Tennant in a bit part. Eccleston doesn’t bring pathos to the morbid moments even as there’s plenty of heat and infatuation to the frankly sexual ones.
Griffiths all but devours him in their shared scenes.
But Winslet’s arrival as Sue marks the picture’s true beginning, and her “bright girl” turn — smoking, convention-defying, witty and atheistic — simply dazzles Jude and us even as the story settles into its long, tragic descent.
I’ve never met a Winterbottom film I didn’t like, and this Hossein Amini (“Driver”) adaptation is never less than engrossing. To maintain its stately, purposeful pace, the picture’s later acts should have been longer, although considering the harsh content, that might have been unbearable.
And in the cold light of day with the unsentimental passage of time, I dare say the director, BBC Films and even Eccleston might agree that there was a serious charisma gap in the casting that turning to the other future “Doctor” on the set might have solved.
Rating: R for strong sexuality and intense depictions of death and birth
Cast: Christopher Eccleston, Kate Winslet, Rachel Griffiths, Liam Cunningham, June Whitfield, James Nesbitt and David Tennant.
Credits: Directed by Michael Winterbottom, scripted by Hossein Amini, based on the novel “Jude the Obscure” by Thomas Hardy. A Gramercy/BBC release on Amazon, Roku, Tubi, other streamers
Running time: 2:03