The Claim

UK release date: 2 February 2001

cast list
Wes Bentley
Milla Jovovich
Peter Mullan
Natassja Kinski
Sarah Polley

directed by
Michael Winterbottom

Michael Winterbottom, apart from having an unfortunate surname, is perhaps best known for his 1996 Thomas Hardy adaptation Jude, with Kate Winslet and Christopher Eccleston. While it was impeccably acted, nicely shot and intelligently scripted, it was unremittingly miserable, and bleak to the point of unwatchability. Therefore, Winterbottom’s next crack at a Hardy adaptation, this time of The Mayor of Casterbridge, made me feel slightly wary, given the sheer depression I felt after watching Jude.

Well, the good news is that it’s much less tragic than Jude, and much less tragic than the novel. Winterbottom moves the setting from Wessex to the Californian mountains, with the characters changed. Therefore, the novel’s Henchard becomes Daniel Dillon, a wealthy gold miner; his assistant in the novel becomes Dalglish, a railroad surveyor. And so forth. As adaptations of novels go, initially this appears to be a good idea; closer than, say, Clueless or Cruel Intentions, but with a distance 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 are they to update it. The novel is not a tragedy because of random events; instead, the tragedy comes from the Henchard/Dillon character having sold his wife and daughter years before, and the consequences that come about when they return into his life. Without giving too much away, The Claim manages to remove all the interesting aspects of the novel’s characters, and introduces a twist halfway through which effectively makes the rest of the film utterly pointless, as well as making the ending bathetic.

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

One of the main reasons that I was looking forward to the film was because 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, the soundtrack 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 a feeling throughout of points being missed and opportunities being lost, and the final feeling is likely to be one of indifference to these characters.

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