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Jude the Obscure

Koch Vision // Unrated // August 8, 2006
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Gerry Putzer | posted September 5, 2006 | E-mail the Author
"Jude the Obscure" was Thomas Hardy's last novel, and he claimed it was his favorite. Yet the book's bleakness, and especially its sexual frankness, were rejected by British critics and readers of 1895. A bitter Hardy, then just 55, gave up the form for good, and turned to writing poetry for the last 32 years of his life. It wasn't until the decade after World War II that he was reassessed and his name rehabilitated -- by Japanese scholars and readers, who, after Hiroshima, had come to appreciate novels that dealt with the cruelty of fate.

But filmmakers had caught on long before, with movies based on Hardy works appearing as early as 1913. Many of his novels and stories have been adapted, the most famous being John Schlesinger's "Far From the Madding Crowd" (1967); a 1978 miniseries of "The Mayor of Casterbridge," starring Alan Bates; and "Tess," Roman Polanski's 1980 masterpiece based on "Tess of the D'Urbervilles."

The prolific British director Michael Winterbottom has done Hardy twice: "The Claim" (2000) was "The Mayor of Casterbridge" relocated to a 19th-century American mining outpost, while "Jude" (1996), starring Christopher Eccleston and Kate Winslet, was a strong production that nevertheless misread the novel. (Eccleston's grinning Jude comes off as a psychopath looking for someone to rape.)

The BBC's 1971 "Jude the Obscure," shown that same year in the U.S. on "Masterpiece Theatre," is not as daring or stylish as Winterbottom's movie, but it is an accurate rendition of the novel.

Dashed dreams
At the start, little orphan Jude Fawley is distressed that schoolmaster Richard Phillotson is moving out of Jude's great-aunt's house and heading to the great seat of knowlege, Christminster (read Oxford), where he hopes to earn a degree and become a professor. Jude grows up dreaming of reaching Christminster himself and becoming a doctor of divinity. The country boy had been taught a little Greek and Latin by Phillotson and now steeps himself in the classics and the Bible. But as a young man (played by Robert Powell) he must make a living, and so apprentices as a stone mason.

The beginning of the end of Jude's dreams comes early on, when he is pressured into marriage by a country girl, Arabella (Alex Marshall); she soon abandons him, allowing him to pursue Sue Bridehead, a cousin with whom he has formed a deeper relationship. Sue (Fiona Walker) is Hardy's depiction of the new modern woman: self-possessed, intellectual, sexually open (if not quite willing to do it) and nonconformist.

Sue is both Jude's savior and his curse, and the reappearance years later of Arabella and Phillotson -- each with their own selfish agenda -- makes Jude's chances of ever being more than an obscure laborer slimmer and slimmer.

Sound of sadness
Right from the dynamic theme music, Hardy's tragic outlook is always hovering in the atmosphere during this six-hour miniseries as we come to understand that it is the characters' flaws -- Jude's single-mindedness, Sue's hypocrisy -- as much as the suffocating English class system and Victorian beliefs that will bring Jude down.

Most scenes are, in the style of British dramas of the time, long and talky. But it's good talk and Powell and Walker skillfully carry most of the load. The supporting cast, down to the last stone cutter or pub dweller, is perfect. (There's also some nudity from Marshall and Walker, a reminder of one reason not-so-studious young guys occasionally tuned in to PBS' British imports.)

THE DVD

Koch Vision has split the six-part miniseries over two one-sided discs, with each episode running about 45 minutes. The picture is standard 4:3 full-screen, the sound Dolby Digital. The 35-year-old production was shot entirely on videotape, but the transfer is superb -- crisp, colorful and looking as fresh as yesterday's episode of "The Young and the Restless."

The main menu of each disc highlights three episodes, and within those episodes, the action is broken down into 11 chapters.

There are no extras save for a promo for Koch Vision's BBC Dickens collection and a DVD-ROM link to the label's Web site. The program's rustic characters speak in authentic Hardy-territory accents that may be a strain to some American ears, yet there are no options for subtitles or close-captioning. The enclosed booklet is merely a brochure for other Koch DVDs.

FINAL THOUGHTS

"Jude the Obscure" was shown during "Masterpiece Theatre's" first season, in 1971, and has been virtually unseen in the U.S. since. So, for English Lit majors and other fans of classic drama, this DVD is a welcome sight indeed, even if it is a bare-bones affair. The shot-on-video production -- mostly done in studio, with occasional escapes to the English countryside -- is typical of its time but is in pristine shape.

The performances are fine from top to bottom, though it all hinges on the impassioned, poignant work of Robert Powell and Fiona Walker. Fans of the sublime 1978 adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn's "The Norman Conquests" (still not on DVD!) will get a kick out of seeing that production's caustic Walker here looking and acting much more demure.

The four-hour-plus running time allows a complete telling of Hardy's story -- it's not a substitute for the great novel, but it is a moving representation. So, for most casual viewers, this is a recommended DVD; for serious Hardy lovers (and we know who we are), make that highly recommended.

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