By consciously avoiding British frock-movie cliches, and adopting a fluid, almost Gallic approach to the narrative, young Brit helmer Michael Winterbottom has come up with a movie that may not deliver for many auds. Closest parallel in filmmaking style is, in fact, Truffaut’s several costume dramas, with their fractured narrative, semi-modern feel and emotional distancing.
Opening reel, in B&W, lays out the setting (Hardy’s fictional “Wessex”) and central theme of the story, with the boy Jude (James Daley) shown the distant spires of university town Christminster by his childhood hero, the schoolmaster Phillotson (Liam Cunningham). It is, says the teach, the place to go if he wants to make good, adding that everyone is free to choose his own future.
Switch to color, and the 1880s, and the adult Jude (Christopher Eccleston), earnestly studying the classics in his spare time, falls for sexy, come-hither country lass Arabella (Rachel Griffiths). Against the advice of his aunt (June Whitfield), he marries Arabella, who soon ups and leaves him for Australia.
Taking control of his life, Jude moves to Christminster, where he bumps into Sue (Winslet), a cousin he knows only from photographs. He immediately falls for the feisty, independent-minded young femme. She has ambitions to be a teacher, and Jude introduces her to Phillotson, who not only gives her a chance in his school but falls for her as well.
Turned down by the university, Jude returns home to Marygreen, but later accepts an invitation from Sue to visit her and Phillotson in Melchester, where they’ve moved as teachers. When Sue stays at Jude’s apartment one night, the pair come close to realizing their simmering attraction. But when he later tells her he’s still technically married, she capriciously decides to tie the knot with Phillotson.
Only later, following Phillotson’s admission that the marriage isn’t working, do Jude and Sue hook up, flouting convention by living together, raising a family and, for the bittersweet final act, returning to the seat of Jude’s dreams, Christminster.
Aside from its basically downer theme of unattainable ambitions, the biggest challenge Hardy’s novel poses for any screen version is maintaining a dramatic arc. Scripter Hossein Amini’s solution is to honor the original’s structure — with the main characters perpetually coming together, being separated and moving hither and thither about the countryside — but to boil down the dialogue into a deliberately unliterary, timeless English. Apart from a couple of scenes, the dialogue sits well in the characters’ mouths, natural but free of jarring modernisms.
Even at two hours, however, the pic moves at a gallop to pack everything in. (A 1971 BBC version, starring Robert Powell and Fiona Walker, took the miniseries route.)
Though there is no voiceover narration, the dramatic feel is strikingly similar to Truffaut’s “Two English Girls,” with a succession of short scenes that dip into the characters’ lives at key moments, interlarded with musical montages to jolly things along.
As with Truffaut’s costumers, half the idea is to maintain a distance from the usual conventions of melodrama, and the other half is to let the film’s emotional arc emerge from the players’ gradually accreting performances. When a character does get a key moment of repose the effect is striking.
In a difficult role, Eccleston is totally convincing as the ever-patient, accepting-of-fate country lad. Though technically the lead, the thesp turns in a generous, well-etched perf that’s basically a support to the pic’s real star role.
In that, the photogenic Winslet is aces. Celebrated in the direction with sequences that parallel those for Jeanne Moreau in “Jules and Jim,” the actress turns a potentially annoying, capricious character into a celebration of dogged independence and fidelity to her own values. Whether Sue is puffing on a cigarette, bicycling in the country or expounding her views on life, Winslet is the motor and emotional center of the movie.
Switching from lusty farm girl to cool society woman, Aussie actress Griffiths is persuasive as Arabella, a constant reminder to Jude of the opportunities that lie beyond his self-limited horizons. Cunningham is solid as Phillotson, and Whitfield, in a small role, is reliable.
Technically, pic is top-drawer, with restless, fluid cutting by Trevor Waite that adds to the unstarchy look, and a copious musical score by Adrian Johnston that gives a separate “sound” to the many locations (a folksy drone for Marygreen, High Baroque music for academic Christminster, and so on). In line with Winterbottom’s naturalistic approach, Joseph Bennett’s clever production design, using locations in Edinburgh (repping Christminster), northeast England and New Zealand (for summery Wessex), allows Eduardo Serra’s widescreen camera the freedom to roam rather than rigidly shoot from fixed angles, adding substantially to the pic’s visual bang on limited bucks.