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Film: The dead crow society

We shouldn't be surprised by Michael Winterbottom's bleak vision of `Jude'. This is the man who gave us `Butterfly Kiss' and `Cracker'. By Chris Peachment
The cinema heritage industry proceeds apace in its rifling of the Eng Lit canon. Two weeks ago we had Emma, then last week a new Jane Eyre, and now Jude, Michael Winterbottom's version of Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. With the forthcoming Portrait of a Lady and Wings of a Dove, film-makers seem to be using up our past as if there was no tomorrow. With Jude, however, there is no need for what a friend of mine calls a "Full Bonnet Alert". There are no bonnets, no muttonchop whiskers, and nothing like the flouncing crinolines that are usually thrust in our faces in any film set in the last century.

Hardy published the book in 1895, just as the Victorian era was closing, and cinema was being invented. This Jude is nearer to DH Lawrence in its themes, and nothing like the Laura Ashley school of film-making in its aesthetic. The landscapes are muddy, the towns are forbidding, and its characters look haunted. Even the film's poster is as black as a wolf's throat.

Winterbottom first read the book in his teens, "not for school", he insists, but for his own pleasure. It became a favourite because it was about sticking to your principles, "and when you are a teenager, you feel it is yourself against the whole world". He spent much of his youth in film clubs in Bradford, although it never really occurred to him that "people actually made films". After reading English at Oxford, he did a one-year course in film-making at Bristol University, and went into the business as an assistant editor. Jude is his second film as director, following on from the well-received Butterfly Kiss.

In person, Winterbottom is a fresh-faced man, casually dressed in chef's checked trousers, which are rolled up at the bottom to reveal a length of calf and tennis shoes with no socks. He talks quite quickly, in a free- association sort of way, but with considerable enthusiasm about his subjects. Given that these have included two documentaries on Swedish gloom-merchant Ingmar Bergman, the first episodes of Cracker, the four-part Roddy Doyle series Family, which elicited the word "grim" from a hundred TV reviewers, and the recent Go Now, about a man who contracts multiple sclerosis, one might have expected a hollow-cheeked Prozac candidate with clamped jaws and leaking eyes. I don't know what he ponders on at four in the morning, but here and now he seems as cheerful as they come.

If you think of Hardy on screen, you tend to think of lush rural landscape. Schlesinger's Far from the Madding Crowd was shot in sunny Dorset by then- cameraman Nic Roeg. Legal constraints forced Roman Polanski to shoot Tess in Brittany, but the overall look of the film was still heavy on surrounding greenery. What you get in the opening sequences of Jude is mud as far as the eye can see, and the odd dead crow.

"We shot that in north Yorkshire," says Winterbottom, "because I wanted to get away from the lushness of Dorset, which I suspect is not now how it looked then anyway. Yes, it's a bit bleak, but I think that chimes better with the book. When you think of most of Hardy you do think of his country as being lyrical, but that's not the case with Jude. Tess was about the loss of rural innocence, but with Jude that has already happened. Jude does, in fact, lead an urban existence as a stone mason, and the country is just something he passes through. I wanted to make the countryside mirror his mood."

There is less emphasis in the book on a malign fate at work than is usual in Hardy. Jude's attempts to enter the university at "Christminster" (Hardy's Oxford) are blocked by a social order that did not admit the working classes to such places, no matter how well educated. And his relationship with his cousin Sue Bridehead blights his working life because of public reaction to their not being married. None the less, the tragedy, when it strikes, is appalling.

"This is still a love story about ideals," says Winterbottom, "which is counterpointed with the harsh reality of what can happen to outcasts. I don't think the book is very fatalistic. We want Jude to succeed, and indeed he could have. It's not the gods who cause his downfall, and it's not fate. It's just that society, and its institutions, have conventions that are against him. The tragedy does seem out of proportion to what has gone before, but the reason it happened was because he was hounded and isolated from the community. The university, the church and the people are all against him, and this rejection creates the circumstances under which the tragedy can happen. Tess was about how cruel fate can be. This is about society being cruel." This, combined with the book's sexual frankness, caused a reception so hostile at the time that Hardy never wrote another novel, and turned instead to poetry.

Another aspect of the film that may well cause heartburn among those hoping for some respectful period drama is the dialogue. Winterbottom was adamant with his screenwriter Hossein Amini that he did not want any historical flummery. "A lot of period films tend to have very literary talk," says Winterbottom, "and you get the impression that these characters are speaking as if they were in a novel, very formal and proper. We wanted the story to come across as cleanly as possible. Hardy set most of his books in the past, but Jude has a contemporary setting, and we wanted to give it a modern rawness." The result is not exactly modern English. It is dialogue that could have been spoken then, but contains nothing that strikes the ear as "period". In fact, after the first draft of the screenplay, they decided not to return to the book at all, but keep refining without backward reference.

"In fact, when we were finished I did sneak a look at the book again, and we were much closer than I thought. What we thought we had invented was already there. The book is surprisingly modern."

His first film, Butterfly Kiss, followed the escapades of a couple of killer girl hitchhikers across a Northern landscape of fly-blown motorway lay-bys. Winterbottom does not look like a film-maker who goes for easy options. His next project, which he has just finished shooting, is Sarajevo, a story based on the experiences of the ITN news reporter Michael Nicholson and the Bosnian orphan he adopted while out there.

"It is a way of dealing with Sarajevo through the eyes of an outsider," says Winterbottom. "We were there eight weeks after the war was over. The place is extraordinary. There would be areas that were completely devastated, whole blocks of rubble, and then you would come across a restaurant that was open, next to a flourishing market. Our interpreter was just one block away from the front line, but her house was untouched. It's a very modern city, but this war damage makes it look like something from the past." I doubt, though, that we'll be seeing many Bosnians dancing round a maypole in traditional peasant dress.

n `Jude' is reviewed by Adam Mars-Jones overleaf. It is on general release tomorrow