It is not improbabilities of incident but improbabilities of character that matter.—Thomas Hardy
In 1884, while researching the local history of Dorchester in western England, Victorian poet and novelist Thomas Hardy stumbled upon a record of a man who put his own wife up for auction. This account inspired "The Mayor of Casterbridge," generally considered one of Hardy's greatest novels, and indeed one of the great tragedies of English literature.
In The Claim, British director Michael Winterbottom has transposed Hardy's story to the key of the American West. Set during the waning years of the Gold Rush, in a fictional town high in the Sierra Nevadas, the film interweaves Hardy's themes of man's self-destructiveness and the ironies of fate with its own lament for the decline of the Wild West and the taming of the American frontier.
If you think that sounds a little ambitious for two hours, you're right. Though not a bad movie, The Claim falls short of greatness in its effort to hammer home too many different messages and give screen time to too many different characters. Still, it succeeds in presenting a vivid picture of prospecting life in the high Sierras without losing the spirit of Hardy's original work.
Facts of the Case
In the winter of 1867, a survey team from the Central Pacific Railroad Company arrives at the prospecting town of Kingdom Come. Its chief engineer, one Donald Dalglish, is welcomed by Daniel Dillon, the town's mayor, and his mistress Lucia, madam of the local brothel.
Despite his friendly overtures, Dillon is not unaware of the changes heralded by the team's arrival. In ending the town's isolation, the railroad will forever alter the way of life in Kingdom Come, and thus his reign over it. What Dillon does not realize is that he will be even more profoundly affected by two women who happen to arrive at the same time as the railroad surveyors.
Elena, a Polish immigrant, is Dillon's wife, and Hope is their daughter. Some twenty years ago, as we learn in an early flashback, Dillon traded Elena and the infant Hope to a lonely prospector in exchange for the claim that made him the wealthy and powerful man he is today. The prospector is now dead, and Elena, herself dying of tuberculosis, has brought Hope to Kingdom Come to ask Dillon to care for her. Unaware of her relationship to Dillon, Hope prefers to spend her time with Dalglish, who seems to return her interest, though she is not the only woman to catch his eye.
The appearance of his wife and daughter revive years of buried guilt, and Dillon seizes the opportunity to atone for his foolish trade in an equally drastic manner. His ruthless actions set in motion a series of events that quickly spiral out of his control, in a world that is no longer his to rule.
Director Michael Winterbottom is certainly no stranger to the works of Thomas Hardy. His Jude, released in 1996 to critical accolades, was remarkably faithful to the original text of Hardy's "Jude the Obscure." The Claim represents a very different approach to the translation of literature to film, altering not only location but also plot details and character roles.
Hardy strove to communicate a strong sense of place in all his stories, and though the location has changed, Frank Cottrell Boyce's screenplay retains this attention to setting. In contrast with the quiet, homogenous English village of Casterbridge, Kingdom Come is a rough-and-tumble collection of immigrants from all over the world, struggling against the elements and each other for survival and for wealth. In the New World anything is possible, and even likely.
Yet the story's spirit remains the same: an unremitting tragedy, in which the whims of fate conspire with the subject's fatal flaws to work his undoing. Like the mayor of Casterbridge, the mayor of Kingdom Come is all too eager to destroy what he has in order to grasp at that which he desires, regardless of the consequences.
The well-chosen cast of The Claim adds depth and dimension to the story, with admirable performances all around. Peter Mullan (Miss Julie, Trainspotting) does credit to the role of Daniel Dillon, the story's most complex character. Milla Jovovich (The Fifth Element, The Messenger) lends a subtle quirkiness to Dillon's lovely mistress Lucia. Nastassja Kinski (Tess, Playing by Heart) is the sickly but determined Elena, and Sarah Polley (Go, eXistenZ) brings Hope to life with innocent strength. Wes Bentley (American Beauty, Soul Survivors), as Donald Dalglish, rounds out the list of major players.
The look of the film is impressively realistic. Filmed in Alberta and Colorado, every exterior shot portrays the mercilessness of winter in the high mountains. The set of Kingdom Come is quite a convincing replica of a prospecting town, and costumes are equally authentic.
The transfer assures that this attention to visuals is not wasted. The Claim exhibits minimal print flaws and artifacting, good color within the picture's bleak palette, and excellent blacks (particularly important in a setting such as this, in which everything looks dark next to the blinding white of the snow).
The soundtrack's primary accompaniment is the bluster of the winter wind, occasionally broken by a measured, genteel score that would be equally appropriate to Hardy's original setting of the tale.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Like Daniel Dillon, The Claim is fatally flawed. The main character of "The Mayor of Casterbridge" is clearly the mayor, Dillon's counterpart. But The Claim attempts to bring too many characters into the spotlight; in shifting Dillon from its center, the story loses much of its impact. One senses that everyone in Kingdom Come has a story, but there's no need to tell them all in two hours.
Both pacing and focus are thrown off by serious defects in the screenplay, which takes too long to set up the wrong things. If I didn't know anything about "The Mayor of Casterbridge," I'd have thought Dalglish was the protagonist of The Claim. He has more screen time in the first act than Dillon, though by the end of the film we have even less of an idea of who he is. When it does get around to Dillon, the screenplay spends too much time on his sex life, and not enough time establishing his character. We are given only the vaguest hints as to just what sort of man he is, and little clue as to what kind of passions could make a man so self-destructive.
The resulting effect is that of being left out in the cold, watching the story unfold through a frost-clouded window while the wind buffets your ears. To make matters worse, the editing is unsettlingly choppy, which further distances the viewer from the subject.
The disc includes no extras aside from the requisite theatrical trailer. Though this film does not demand special features, the lack of English subtitles is a shameful oversight. Not only does it limit the film's accessibility to hearing-impaired audiences, but in this case it would be useful even to those with normal hearing ability. The dialogue in many of the exterior scenes is difficult to catch; it's not easy to enunciate with cold lips.
The Claim is a noble effort, if not an entirely successful one. There is much here that is worth looking at, though I recommend it for rental rather than purchase.
If you're interested in the cinematography of this picture, you can get a nice glimpse of it at the official site, linked above at right. Curious about the book that inspired this film? I've included a link to the full text, available for free in HTML format, as well.
Break up the lynchmob, boys; there'll be no hangin' today. The accused are free to go, even includin' the writer of the screenplay—although it'll be a hot day in Kingdom Come before he's welcome around these parts again.
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Scales of Justice
• Original Theatrical Trailer
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