WesternThomas HardyMilla JovovichNastassja Kinski
The Claim
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Writer: Thomas Hardy, Frank Cottrell Boyce
Keywords: historical, Western
Country: UK, France, Canada
Actor: Peter Mullan, Milla Jovovich, Wes Bentley, Nastassja Kinski, Sarah Polley, Shirley Henderson, Julian Richings, Sean McGinley, Randy Birch, Tom McCamus, Artur Ciastkowski
Format: 120 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0218378/
Website category: British
Review date: 6 June 2011
I approve of it in the abstract, but it's dreary.
It's an impressively serious-minded film, inspired by Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge. The comparison actually occurred to me at the time, although I didn't twig that the similarities were deliberate. (In fairness it's not claiming to be a direct adaptation.) What's most faithful about it is, I'm afraid, the tone. I like Thomas Hardy, but he's often a bit of a slog. I remember the original novel as being quite fun when we were reading about Farfrae, but Michael Henchard is one of those Hardy tragic heroes who'll put themselves on a road to entirely avoidable destruction and furthermore be a misery-guts about it.
Of course that's the point. It's tragedy. However even as it's reproducing the dreariness, this film doesn't even measure up to the original as tragedy, since for instance the film's Milla Jovovich character is a strong, independent woman who runs a brothel and is in charge of her own destiny. That's all very modern, but it's also less powerful than what happens to Hardy's Lucette Le Sueur.
I think a lot of that is due to the change of setting. I love Westerns, but I think they've damaged this storyline. Lucette Le Sueur in the novel is a good woman whose reputation gets tarnished in the eyes of respectable conservative society. Jovovich in the film has chosen to be a brothel-mistress in the Wild West. These things are not the same. Similarly the key scene of selling the wife and child is no longer the opening scene and instead comes a little later as a flashback that's not even explained at the time. We witness it, then only later realise its significance. (So that's why he's rich!) The scene lacks power, partly because of the setting but also partly because the film's deliberately toning it down. There's no public auction. It's just people in a tent in the snow. Instead of being shocked, you'll be thinking Nastassja Kinski's lucky to be rid of the guy.
Other key scenes are bald too. Even if you've never read the novel, you'll be waiting for the scene where Peter Mullan confesses to Sarah Polley... but when it comes, it's almost thrown away. That doesn't make it a bad scene, though. It's a stylistic decision. That's the film this is.
However this isn't a fair discussion. I should talk about the film I watched, not just a book it's only claiming to be inspired by. It's set in 1867 in the Wild West, in the snow. At one point they had to stop filming when the director, Michael Winterbottom, got frostbite. (The book was published in 1886, by the way.) More specifically the story's set in a town called Kingdom Come that's ruled by Peter Mullan, who more or less owns it and everyone and everything in it. If you even want to breathe, you'd better make sure it's okay with him. He's not a bad guy, though. As for the other characters, some who've recently arrived in the town are Wes Bentley, a surveyor who's got to decide where to build a new railroad that will change everyone's lives, and the mother-daughter pair of Nastassja Kinski and Sarah Polley.
The reason I approve of this film is that it's a serious dramatic Western with great production values and a ton of integrity. The snowscapes are beautiful, the actors are giving it everything and even if you don't enjoy it, it's a film you've got to respect.
It also has strikingly good-looking actresses (e.g. Jovovich) and naked prostitutes.
Michael Winterbottom likes Thomas Hardy, incidentally. He adapted Jude the Obscure in 1996, starring Christopher Eccleston, then this year he's going to be releasing an India-set version of the much-adapted Tess of the d'Urbervilles, called Trishna. Despite what I thought of The Claim, that sounds mildly intriguing. As for other versions of The Mayor of Casterbridge, there's a 1921 silent film, a 1951 opera, a 2003 TV movie and a seven-part 1978 Dennis Potter series for the BBC.
Overall, not great. Instead it's merely taking itself very seriously and making a lovely-looking film that I'm sure will have been much admired by people who haven't read the novel. Everything about it bar the script I think is excellent, but I can't help thinking that every single story beat and decision is less powerful than in the original. What happens to Kingdom Come isn't our tragic protagonist's fault, for instance, but merely a consequence of what's happening with the railroad. I often end with a quote, but here I'm going to quote Hardy's novel rather than the film. Nothing in the latter seems to measure up, except perhaps "they were like kings". The quote I'm going to give here is instead from Henchard's terrible last will and testament, as written by Hardy:
"That Elizabeth-Jane Farfrae be not told of my death, or made to grieve on account of me. & that I be not bury'd in consecrated ground. & that no sexton be asked to toll the bell. & that nobody is wished to see my dead body. & that no murners walk behind me at my funeral. & that no flours be planted on my grave, & that no man remember me. To this I put my name."