The Claim

UK release date: Sep 8 2009

cast list

Wes Bentley
Milla Jovovich
Peter Mullan
Natassja Kinski
Sarah Polley

directed by
Michael Winterbottom

Michael Winterbottom, apart from having an unfortunate surname, isperhaps best known for his 1996 Thomas Hardy adaptation Jude, with KateWinslet and Christopher Eccleston. While it was impeccably acted, nicelyshot and intelligently scripted, it was unremittingly miserable, andbleak to the point of unwatchability. Therefore, Winterbottom’s nextcrack at a Hardy adaptation, this time of The Mayor of Casterbridge,made me feel slightly wary, given the sheer depression I felt afterwatching Jude.

Well, the good news is that it’s much less tragic than Jude, and muchless tragic than the novel. Winterbottom moves the setting from Wessexto the Californian mountains, with the characters changed. Therefore,the novel’s Henchard becomes Daniel Dillon, a wealthy gold miner; hisassistant in the novel becomes Dalglish, a railroad surveyor. And soforth. As adaptations of novels go, initially this appears to be a goodidea; closer than, say, Clueless or Cruel Intentions, but with adistance that hopefully introduces some resonance and interest.

Unfortunately, Winterbottom and his screenwriter, Frank CottrellBoyce, manage to completely miss the point of the novel, so eager arethey to update it. The novel is not a tragedy because of random events;instead, the tragedy comes from the Henchard/Dillon character havingsold his wife and daughter years before, and the consequences that comeabout when they return into his life. Without giving too much away, TheClaim manages to remove all the interesting aspects of the novel’scharacters, and introduces a twist halfway through which effectivelymakes the rest of the film utterly pointless, as well as making theending bathetic.

The film is partially redeemed by the acting. Peter Mullan is verygood as Dillon, but his character loses the dimension that it needs forhis performance to be truly great. Wes Bentley is also good,resurrecting his charismatic outsider from American Beauty tointeresting effect (albeit with a beard). However, Natassja Kinski is decidedly uninterestingin the role of the abandoned wife, in a part requiring her to do littlemore than cough and lie in bed. One thing which doesn’t help the film isthat, for an epic, it’s remarkably short on extras; there can’t be morethan a few dozen in the film.

One of the main reasons that I was looking forward to the film wasbecause of the Michael Nyman soundtrack, but, for some bizarre reason,much of the score on the CD was not actually used in the film,presumably because it was felt to be ‘out of place’. In the film, thesoundtrack hardly registers, but on disc, it is magnificent. However,without a film to support, it is perhaps best listened to in isolation.I don’t think that The Claim is a bad film per se; it’s nicely made,interestingly set and shot, and reasonably intelligent. Yet there is afeeling throughout of points being missed and opportunities being lost,and the final feeling is likely to be one of indifference to thesecharacters.

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