In the Victorian era, Jude Fawley (Eccleston) is a bright young lower-class man who dreams of a university education. Circumstances conspire against him, and he is forced into a job as a stonemason and an unhappy marriage to a country girl, Arabella (Griffiths). He remains true to his dream and, months later, after his wife's sudden departure, he heads for the city. He thinks education is available for any man who is willing to work hard. There he encounters his cousin, Sue Bridehead (Winslet), who is beautiful and intelligent, and shares his disdain for convention. Whilst Jude is enraptured by Sue, she decides to marry Jude's former school teacher, Phillotson (Cunningham), after Jude tells her he is married to Arabella. Meanwhile, Jude is rejected for the university based primarily on his lower-class status.