Film: Hardier than the rest, JUDE Michael Winterbottom (15)

This is not pretty costume drama. It's tragic, raw and brutal. As it should be. By Adam Mars-Jones
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Among adaptations for the screen of literary classics, tragedies are infinitely the least tractable. With comedies of manners, you make the interiors look enviably pretty and you broaden the humour if you have to. With romances, you cast the handsomest people you can find. But a tragedy is a sort of theorem of extremity, and if you tinker with the terms you end up with something that bears no relationship to the original. Nor, of course, can you work the routine transformation available to the director of a play, shifting it to a new or contemporary setting while keeping faith with the text. All of which makes Michael Winterbottom's film of Jude the Obscure, titled simply Jude, adapted from Hardy's novel by Hossein Amini, a little triumph.

Jude is an episodic tragedy, in which the disaster is sudden and arbitrary: Fate lurks and leaps. Perhaps that is what the director is thinking of with his fondness for shots in which people appear from nowhere or alternatively where things seem to happen independently of an agent. In the first scene of the film, Jude as a child is discovered by his employer feeding the birds he is meant to scare away, but he is pounced on by a dark figure coming from a field we have seen as bare only seconds before. The effect is rather jarringly Friday the 13th for Wessex.

When Jude (Christopher Eccleston) meets the woman he will mistakenly marry, it is while he is reading a book in Greek at the foot of a tree. Someone throws a pig's heart at him to attract his attention (I did mention it was a Hardy novel, didn't I?), but though there is much ambient laughter no one is in sight. Arabella (Rachel Griffiths) is a considerable way off, washing innards in the stream with her sisters.

Winterbottom dutifully presents Arabella as unworthy of Jude. When they first make love, it is in the pig-shed: the camera tracks away to show us the other residents, and the grunting we hear is not human. The next time we see them be physically intimate it is their wedding night. Their entwined bodies are beautiful enough, but the director adds a winter wind to the sound track. As a result, we hardly need the pig-killing scene to establish the failure of the marriage. Winterbottom films Arabella in an incongruously, misty romantic light as she scrapes off the bristles and pulls the guts out of the suspended pig - skills that might seem dismal in the last century but now come across as exotic and virtually admirable. When Jude meets his destined partner, his cousin Sue Brideshead (Kate Winslet), he puts Arabella out of his mind more completely than the viewer may be able to, partly, of course, because of Griffiths' controlled vitality in the role. Sure, Sue is clever, no question about that, but can she make her own sausages?

It's a characteristic of the story that the forces ranged against the lovers are impersonal. Jude's Aunt Drusilla (June Whitfield) doesn't admire his choices but nor does she punish him for them. Sue's husband, Phillotson (Liam Cunningham), the person with the most right to utter a personal condemnation, understands that his love never had a chance against such an affinity. As Sue leaves his life, there is something perilously close to male bonding between the two men.

Jude and Sue are rejected by institutions, he by the university he would dearly love to join, she by a teacher-training school that likes pupils and teachers alike to ask no awkward questions. Sometimes in the couple's wanderings women override a man's tolerance, as when scandalised parishioners insist that Jude be fired from his job as a stonemason, despite the vicar's neutrality. Sometimes a man overrides a woman's acquiesence. Like the landlady's husband who insists that the couple move on.

Winterbottom uses inter-titles like chapter-headings to divide the episodes - a slightly puzzling antiquarian touch when the screenplay includes things like "there you go" and "you're being rather confrontational". It is the railway train that carries the characters on their reluctant pilgrimages, and the director puts together a number of montages that show the locomotive's somehow royal brutality. The train was not only a form of transport that had created and disrupted different forms of community, but the newest and most striking image of the inevitable, of predestination, of tragedy itself.

Christopher Eccleston makes a fine Jude, with his bony face that can so easily seem raw with pain. At first Kate Winslet seems a little light of presence to be his counterweight, but by the time the director puts together one of those how-happy-we-were montages, we see that she has shaped a performance of range and subtlety. The scene where Sue offers herself to Jude sexually is particularly well managed. Full-frontal nakedness is not normally a requirement, or even a defensible option in adaptations of Victorian novels, but here it is emotionally convincing. Sue is defenceless more than desirous, and she trusts Jude in a way that is poignant for us because we know he is hardly an expert in the business on which they are embarking. They live in a society where you can be a moral outcast and still a virtual stranger to your flesh.

The acting is excellent all the way to the edges of the film. The little band of stonemasons who are Jude's colleagues are vividly presented, while his son, Little Jude (Ross Colvin Turnbull), who appears, relatively late on in the story, makes an extraordinary impact with that most paradoxical thing, a winning solemnness. He has two little scenes in particular, one when he meets Sue and the other when he sees his mother at a fair, that have an extraordinary unforced pathos.

One of the few stilted elements in the film is the music, by Adrian Johnston, which is aligned very squarely with changes of surrounding. So we have rather grating rustic fiddle for Marygreen, the village where Jude grows up - with pipes patly joining the band just at the point where Jude sees distant Christminster for the first time (a vision managed with great visual discretion), and the barest hint of a religious print of the Heavenly City in the slanting, delineated sunlight. Christminster, when he actually moves there, is represented by more or less Baroque music. For Melchester, Johnston comes up with music of romantic melancholy not far from Nyman's score for The Piano.

So excessively coordinated is the music that we know Jude is going home to Marygreen from the moment he wakes up one morning in Christminster, simply because that rustic fiddle strikes up again. Yet it is even possible in this subtly managed film that Michael Winterbottom has calculated this minor annoyance, with its implication that the music will always be a little ahead of the action. In fact, the disaster arrives without any such warning. Jude's life, and Sue's, hit the buffers without any announcement, with a blithe harpsichord still sounding in our ears, if not in theirs.

n `Jude' is on general release from tomorrow