Thursday, July 20, 2006


'I Have Understanding As Well As You': A Film Review Of 'Jude'

'Jude' is an ambitious film. 'Jude The Obscure' is now over a century old, but as a novel it offers little incentive to adapt, particularly since so many of the elements that make up a standard costume drama are impossible to divulge from the text. What's more, unlike most Victorian novels, it is not only political, but political in an anti-romantic way.

Because 'Jude' is adapted by Michael Winterbottom, it is immediately hard to place it meaningfully in a canon. Trying to divine similarities in concern and treatment in Winterbottom's movies is like trying to find similarities in a Stravinsky concert, a can of spray-on cheese and the colour mauve. Consequently, I shall focus this analysis on the film's pivotal relationship with its source.

The scriptwriter Hossein Amini clearly took the decision to follow the narrative structure of the text as closely as possible, even down to using the same section headings that Hardy does, dividing the novel into parts based upon location. A sense of place is crucial to Hardy - not only is his vision of Wessex integral to the myths he creates, but each individual location performs much as a character in the story.

The drive of the novel in its first part is in Jude's own academic ambitions, spurred on by the myth of Christminster that Phillotson provides him with, and is nurtured by Jude as a means of escaping his life at Marygreen. Winterbottom certainly doesn't disappoint in his depiction of the magical moment of Jude's first sight of Christminster through the mist, and in the film we even get rays of sunshine breaking through the clouds to fall on Christminster like steps from heaven, thus tallying nicely with Hardy's Jude's expectant wait for his first glimpse.

The depiction of Christminster, too, tallies nicely, Hardy's descriptions of a town decaying by feeding on its own arrogance translating comfortably into Winterbottom's packed-mud streets, frequent rain and dirty buildings. However, these buildings are perhaps where the film shows itself as slighty too literal an adaptation, failing as it does to make use of the metaphorical import that Hardy places upon the wall in the novel. It is no coincidence in 'Jude The Obscure' that Jude is a stonemason who is employed to build and maintain the very structures that deny his advancement. Two scenes in particular that revolve around this motif are missed out, one in which Sue instructs Jude to leave her house in Shaston, only to speak to him through the window as he reaches the pavement outside, a crucial moment in the book in which a big part of Sue Bridehead's character and relationship with Jude is revealed, a relationship that thrives upon distance and a lack of intimacy. Also missing is the famous scene in which Sue leaps out of the bedroom window rather than sleep in the same room as Phillotson, a scene which gives greater context to Phillotson's later willingness to give Sue up. Consequently, the ease with which Sue escapes her marital bond with Phillotson must puzzle viewers unfamiliar with the source.

What is left in is the scene in which Jude, upon receiving an arrogant and snobbish rejection letter from a college principal suggesting that he should stick to his class, goes to the college and writes the quotation that graces the title of this review upon the wall of the college. The quote is from Job 12:3, in which Job, the most pious man in all Christendom, whose faith is being tested, replies to Zophar the Naamathite who asks him;

"Can you fathom the mysteries of God?
Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?"

"They are higher than the heavens—what can you do?
They are deeper than the depths of the grave —what can you know?"

Job 11: 7-8

Jude here is cast as Job, attempting to improve his knowledge of God that he might serve him better - because for all the critical focus that is placed upon Hardy's supposed atheism, Jude certainly isn't atheist - while the college principal is like Zophar, questionning whether Job/Jude should attempt this gain in knowledge, that perhaps shouldn't even be 'knowable'.

That Amini and Winterbottom leave this moment in is entirely to their credit - it is, narrative-wise, non-crucial, but it provides a chance for the viewer unacquainted with the source material to fully comprehend both Jude's intelligence and his drive - compare the knowledge shown by Jude in the quote with the patronising attitude of the college principal, and you see who is really ignorant. It is to Winterbottom and Amini's credit that, unlike the principal, they don't patronise their audience and find a more modern, relevant way of conveying the same emotion.

None of which is to say that the film doesn't considerably modernise the book in some respects. The dark, dingy tavern of the novel where Jude discovers Arabella after their parting years before is gone, replaced by a light, airy pub type building which looks thoroughly new. Also sacrificed is the black trenchcoat and long beard traditionally associated with Jude, presumably considered likely to alienate the audience. However, it would be churlish for me to write this review without confirming that, as everybody says when they review this film, both Christopher Eccleston as Jude and Kate Winslet as Sue are excellent in it. In particular, Eccleston's long, thin torso gives him the appearance of a tortured man in a classical painting, particularly in the scene after he has fucked Arabella in a cheap hotel - a very modern moment in the novel, I always think - when the impression is compounded by his curled posture and the fact that his head lies upon her naked breast. It is a wonderfully evocative image, and again, credit where its due.

Arabella, however, is perhaps the one character where Amini's script slips up. The treatment of her in the first part of the film, in which Jude's love for Arabella has to seem completely pure and innocent, if naive, is managed perfectly well. However, as a consequence either of time pressure and vigorous editing, or else of failing to get to grips with the character, many of her crucial scenes are missed out or have bits lopped off, and a rather misleading impression is given of her. Hardy treats Arabella as a mixture of cynical realist, shrewd and immoral manipulator and comical caricature. Her ill-deeds, of which there are plenty, are tempered by the fact that her initial observation that his book-chasing would be to waste his life is a prophecy that comes true, and the fact that her credulous and rather simple nature make her hard to hate. By contrast, in the film she is an apologetic and misguided wayward soul whose heart is in the right place, and she is deprived of both her devious and cynical re-wooing of Jude and her crucial last lines by the fact that the end of the novel isn't included in the film.

This last is rather puzzling. Having condensed 370-odd pages of solid prose into a two-hour film, you would think they could have spared another ten minutes to do the last thirty and give the film the send-off the story requires. Instead, we get a rather watered-down ending in which twin tragedies - Jude's ultimate death, and Sue's thoroughly unhappy re-marriage to Phillotson, are both left undisclosed.

Still, I think the spirit of the novel is kept alive through the rest of the film. I have to say, I feared the worst when I found out that the novel's archaic but crucial title had been shorn down to the bare minimum, but to be fair, the novel could have gone under several names, and Hardy's initial choice - 'The Simpletons' - is considerably worse. The film also does well to stay true to the visceral nature of the novel, although I have to say I thought that in the novel it was a pig's penis, rather than some random organ, that Arabella threw at Jude to attract his attention. However, I personally found the nudity and the graphic scene of childbirth to be a helpful factor in distinguishing this work from - and in elevating it above - the average entry in the costume drama genre, of which this really isn't a part.

It's worth seeing, and a good adaptation of the novel. The novel, however, remains one of the greatest ever written.

Good stuff.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?