The fact that some novels are unfilmable doesn't stop filmmakers from trying. Certainly many thought "The English Patient" was such an impossibility, but along came Anthony Minghella to change all that. Now here's "Jude," a literal version of Thomas Hardy's "Jude the Obscure" to try the same trick. But unlike "Patient," it remains a nasty piece of work, made nastier by the big screen and the brilliant cinematography.
The film has several definite pleasures, but one stroke so monstrous it takes your breath away and will render the food tasteless in your mouth for a couple of weeks. You can't blame the filmmaker Michael Winterbottom; he was just following orders from a superior officer, Thomas Hardy.
Hardy's book was conceived as a biting attack on moral and religious orthodoxy, an early plea for freedom, as it documented the terrible price two people would pay for theirs in Victorian times.
The two are Jude Fawley (Christopher Eccleston) and his cousin Sue Bridehead (Kate Winslet). His sin is overreaching: A stonemason with a penchant for the classics, he dreams of becoming a scholar. Fat chance. Hers is an early form of feminism: Headstrong and rebellious, she insists on flouting convention -- with Jude, who is her cousin and ultimately father of her two children, while she is married to someone else. Incest, anyone? Illegitimacy? Who knew the starchy old Vics had so much fun in those petticoats?
Not right away, but gradually the empire strikes back, destroying them over the long years by frustrating their every goal and taking its last terrible vengeance on the kids. The movie is dutiful, well-made, brilliantly acted and cold as suet in the window on a December morn. I was unprepared for the moment of abject horror that is the movie's fulcrum and, worse, I didn't believe it for a second. Maybe it was better in the book -- but I doubt it.
Starring Kate Winslet and Christopher Eccleston
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Released by Gramercy
Sun score: **
Pub Date: 11/22/96