Jude the Obscure (1971)

“Gone to Australia with me dad to find a proper man.”

This BBC television version of “Jude the Obscure” was made in the early 70s. As a film adaptation of the novel, I seriously doubt that it will ever be surpassed. The two VHS tape set runs for just over 260 minutes, and it’s this sort of length that does justice to one of Thomas Hardy’s most complicated novels.

Jude Fawley (Robert Powell) grows up in the village of Marygreen. Jude is an orphan who is raised by his aunt Drusilla (Daphne Heard). She prophesizes doom and gloom for any of the Fawleys who are foolish enough to marry. According to Aunt Drusilla, the Fawleys are just not the marrying kind. Jude’s schoolmaster Mr. Phillotson (John Franklyn-Robbins) lodges at the Fawley house, and he heavily influences the boy to study hard. It’s Jude’s goal to attend university in Christchurch and eventually enter the church. For someone of Jude’s social standing, this is both a dangerous and impossible dream. But when Phillotson leaves to return to university with the intention of seeking a degree, Christchurch becomes a symbolic Mecca in Jude’s impressionable mind.

Jude, the self-taught rustic scholar, eventually becomes a stonemason, and still nurses his ambition to attend university at Christminster. His plans go awry, however, when he meets Bella (Alex Downs), the coarse voluptuous daughter of a local pig-farmer. Later, Jude becomes romantically involved with his cousin, the self-focused Sue Bridehead (Fiona Walker)–a woman who professes to possess dangerously modern ideas. These ideas–free love, emancipation, and atheism, all mask Sue’s highly conventional and frigid personality.

“Jude The Obscure” is one of Thomas Hardy’s greatest novels, and it’s also one of his darkest and most complex. The film version is exquisitely faithful to the novel, and it also manages to translate some of Hardy’s major and difficult themes to the screen. One of Hardy’s favourite themes–the connection of the individual to the landscape is played to perfection in “Jude the Obscure.” Another major theme is the corruption of the institution of marriage. Both Jude and Sue Bridehead experience loveless marriages, and they also both experience social and ecclestaical pressure and censure to remain in these loveless marriages. A third theme is the battle between the physical and spiritual self experienced by Jude and Sue. Jude’s love for the confused and confusing semi-hysterical Sue Bridehead is in complete contrast to his relationship with Bella. Bella is pure animal–all instinct. She’s marvelously uncomplicated and has no moral qualms whatsoever when it comes to doing whatever is in her best self-interest. She never stops and questions her place in the universe, and she creates her own destiny. Jude and Sue, on the other hand, agonize, philosophize, and torture themselves at every opportunity. “Jude the Obscure”–Hardy’s most subversive novel outraged Victorian reviewers when it was published, and Hardy never wrote another novel again.

This is not a big budget production, and some of the indoor sets are simple but authentic. In spite of its production shortcomings, this version of “Jude the Obscure” far exceeds the 1996 big budget Eccleston/Winslet film version.

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