Claim, The: Winterbottom Disappointing Adaptation of Thomas Hardy Novel

Inspired by Thomas Hardy’s moral fable The Mayor of Casterbridge, Michael Winterbottom’s The Claim boasts the physical scale and formal beauty of an epic Western, but it suffers from a slim and fractured narrative, unengaging mode of storytelling, and yet another irritating performance from Milla Jovovich in the female lead.

Set in 1867, after the Gold Rush, against the Sierra Nevada Mountains, this tale of love, greed, revenge, and redemption also aims to provide poignant commentary on the the making of California as a unique state in American history and mythology.

Unfortunately, Winterbottom’s second foray into Hardy’s terrain is as severely flawed and as commercially problematic as his first one, Jude. United Artists faces an uphill battle in positioning a muddled period piece amongst the top guns of a particularly crowded theatrical season.

Hoping from genre to genre, Winterbottom is an ambitious British filmmaker who has established a reputation of tackling difficult material in an innovative way. However, based on the evidence of his half a dozen pictures, he’s clearly more adept in telling modern stories, such as Welcome to Sarajevo and most recently Wonderland (both Cannes competition entries), than historical epics on the order of Jude or The Claim.

Adapting Hardy to the big screen has presented a challenge for filmmakers, and the results have been at best mixed. John Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1967) and Polanski’s Oscar-nominated Tess (1980) are semi-effective efforts, with both benefiting from a strong central performance, Julie Christie in the former and Nastassja Kinski in the latter; arguably, the best thing about Jude was Kate Winslet’s captivating portrait, which anchored the film.

Protagonist is Dillon (Peter Mullan, winner of Cannes Actor Award for My Name Is Joe), a rugged Irish pioneer who had defied the harsh landscape in search of gold. When the story begins, he is presented as a tough patriarch who, having amassed unimaginable wealth, runs a thriving town, Kingdom Come, where he owns every institution: the bank, the mines, the hotel, even the liquor store. In the early scenes, Dillon is seen with Lucia (Jovovich), an exotic Portuguese chanteuse and brothel owner, with whom he has an affair.

Things change dramatically when three outsiders arrive into town. Dalglish (American Beauty’s Wes Bentley) is a young, handsome surveyor who appears in Kingdom Come with the ambition of expanding the Central Pacific Railroad, which clashes with Dillon’s rule as it threatens the future of his town.

The two other strangers are Elena (Kinski), a sickly though still beautiful Polish immigrant, and her daughter, Hope (Sarah Polley). Their joint presence also threatens the town’s stability and Dillon’s welfare though in a very different way than Dalglish’s. Brief flashbacks interspersed in the narrative suggest their link to Dillon’s past, one that continues to haunt him despite efforts of reconciliation. Tale is structured around a big family secret–actually a scandal–and how it affects the new tangled relationships among a quintet of characters whose affairs of the heart often clash with their business interests.

Those familiar with Hardy’s 1886 sprawling novel will be vastly disappointed with Winterbottom’s rendition. The book’s point of departure is the grave problems that result from its protagonist’s wildly inhuman act of selling his wife. The tangled web woven from this man’s error was of modern design, stressing the tragedy of expiation, that the wrong he has done can never be repaired; the act of injustice plagues him to his bitter death.

Hardy employed a naturalistic method to depict the rustic life, vivid characters, and colorful speech of the bumpkins of Casterbridge (standing in for the town of Dorchester), details that are missing from the screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce (a frequent Winterbottom collaborator who also wrote Hilary and Jackie). As with Jude, the dialogue is anachronistic, marred by a lingo that’s neither authentic for its historic setting nor contemporary in a manner that will speak to modern viewers.

Worse, each of the chief personae receives a simplistic characterization, basically one dominant attribute, particularly the women. Hence Lucia is lusty and aggressive; Elena, mostly seen in bed, is associated with agony and pain; Hope is a naive innocent representing a better future. Under these circumstances, the only character that’s fully rounded is Dillon’s, and it’s a tribute to Mullan’s multi-shaded performance that it accounts for the few interesting scenes in the film.

Moreover, a huge gap prevail between the texture of the outdoors scenes, which are all about stark beauty, and the indoor ones, which go for intense lyricism. On a very superficial level, The Claim recalls Altman’s richly moody McCabe and Mrs. Miller, also set in the winter, though at the turn of the century Northwest. Like that 1971 Western, which depicted a doomed romance between a bit gambler and brothel owner and a drug-addicted madame, The Claim is similarly about the collision of dreams and reality, about the inevitability of change propelled by new technology and new mores.
Though not as distinguished as Vilmos Zsigmond’s lensing for Altman’s dreamy epic, Alwin Kuchler’s photography provides moments of visual pleasure, with spectacular long shots of inhabiting the land, building the railroads, dragging fully-constructed wood-houses up hill with horses. In all fairness, even though The Claim is gravely impaired, it deserves credit for trying to portray a different kind of West from what’s been the norm in Hollywood’s sagas: a multi-racial, dynamically in-flux gritty landscape–and America’s truly last frontier.

Cast
Dillon…….Peter Mullan
Dalglish…..West Bentley
Lucia……Milla Jovovich
Elena….Mastassja Kinski
Hope………Sarah Polley
Bellinger..Julian Richings
Sweetley…..Sean McGinley

Credits

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 120 minutes

A UA release of an MGM presentation of a Revolution Films production, in association with Pathe Pictures, The Arts Council of England, Le Studio Canal+, the BBC and Alliance Atlantis. Produced by Andrew Eaton. Executive producers, Martin Katz, Alexis Lloyd, Andrea Calderwood. Co-producer, Douglas Bergist. Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Screenplay, Frank Cottrell Boyce, inspired by the novel The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy. Camera (DeLuxe, wide screen), Alwin Kuchler; editor, Trevor Waite; music, Michael Kyman; production design, Mark Tildesley; costume design, Joanne Hansen.