***½/**** Image A Sound A
starring Wes Bentley, Milla Jovovich, Nastassia Kinski, Peter Mullan
screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce
directed by Michael Winterbottom
by Walter Chaw Cold and barren as the winter's landscape it inhabits, Michael Winterbottom's exceptional retelling of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge is the delicate and maddening The Claim. It's told in undertones and sidelong glances, gathering its strength from the inexorable tides of fate and the offhand caprices of nature that reflect the essential chaos at the centre of every man's character. Hardy stated about The Mayor of Casterbridge that "it is not improbabilities of incident but improbabilities of character that matter," and the subtitle of the novel is, consequently, "A Man of Character." Though it's possible to take the subtitle as ironic seeing as the titular main character is guilty in the first chapter (an incident related in the film as a flashback) of an act that is at the very least heinous, both novel and film are earnest in exploring the sticky gradations of morality without value judgment.
The strength of Thomas Hardy is his ability to unearth the peculiarities of personal archetype that shape an individual, and further by relating those peculiarities to a story of forces of nature (of which fate, that "sinister intelligence bent upon punishing," is one). Hardy, perhaps more than any other author since William Wordsworth, understood that identity is invested in archetype, and archetype is invested in that ineffable story of place.
The wonder of the flawed The Claim is that Winterbottom's choices to compress events, to transplant the action from Hardy's fictional Wessex to a boom town in the Sierra Nevadas, and to reimagine the pivotal set-pieces of the novel from Hardy's autumnal fall to a wind-blasted mountain winterscape, are to a one, faithful to the feeling and effect of not only Hardy, but also the death of the American West myth. Understanding that the American West didn't flourish under the railroad, but floundered and died as civilization encroached upon and ravished what was believed to be an indefatigable nature, Winterbottom's introduction of the passing of the Central Pacific Railway accomplishes the agile trick of balancing and subtly subverting the perceptions of the railroad in Europe (bad), with the perceptions of the railroad, simultaneously, in the United States (good).
Still and all, despite the ambition and craft of The Claim, there remain moments that are not as certain as they should be, and others that are not as clear as they deserve to be. While Winterbottom has said that he intended it to be more epic in scale and was disappointed that the studio asked him to rein it in, the film draws its strength from its tenebrous reticence and rare reserve--and exposes its weakness in the moments it exceeds its reach.
Dalglish (Wes Bentley) is the head of an expeditionary crew looking to find a trail through the icy Sierra Nevada range suitable for the passage of the commerce-giving rail line. Standing in its hopeful way is a small town called Kingdom Come, established on the site of a vein of gold and an old wrong. The mayor of Kingdom Come, Dillon (Peter Mullan), hopes that Dalglish will situate the town right along the path of the all-important railroad; he also hopes that a terrible misdeed that this essentially good man has committed in the past will remain hidden. The Claim is about Dillon, who has changed his character, being disappointed.
The picture opens on a mother and daughter, Elena and Hope (Nastassja Kinski and Sarah Polley), as they slide along the frigid road to Kingdom Come. (If you're wondering whether or not you should attach a kind of symbolism to names like "Kingdom Come" and "Hope," recall that Hardy believed character to be tied to archetype, and archetype attached to place.) Elena and Hope ("Susan" and "Elizabeth-Jane" in the novel) are drawn to Kingdom Come much like, we come to suspect, the railroad is drawn to Kingdom Come: by inevitability and destiny. All things come to an end, and the bucolic life of a small isolated boomtown is no more spared the notion of unstoppable change as it is spared the cruelty of frigid winter, nor are dark secrets destined to lie forever covered in T.S. Eliot's blanket of forgetful snow. It is not ten minutes into the film before Dillon's secret past with Elena and Hope is revealed; The Claim is not really a mystery story. Its main purpose is to show how a man's character, no matter how penitent and invested in reclamation, is often set at the moment of irreversible crisis. Although a Christian God may forgive you your trespasses, fate and nature never will--the karmic payment plan: buy now, pay forever. Before the film is over, Hope will find love, will find her father after he has died (and here the screenplay departs from the novel), and will discover her cold inheritance after losing a fortune in misbegotten gold. The Claim, despite its cool tone and slow pace, is packed with import and symbol and, most importantly, with landscapes and images as intractable as the Sierra Nevada frost itself.
Wes Bentley is as distant and strange as he was in American Beauty, and those qualities of detachment serve the all-powerful representative of the railroad well. One of the beauties of Winterbottom's film is that he is remarkably free of prejudice in depicting the ambiguity of not merely man, but man in an environment and place so harsh that all traces of pretense are burned away. It is in this environment that Dillon loses his head (he blames alcohol, and one of the most affecting lines is his apology for his addiction, though we suspect that it is the hardships of the land that warps his judgment), and it is in this environment that we witness Dalglish succumbing to first the lust for flesh, and later the lust for blood. The demands of Winterbottom's vision also make an unusual object of desire the character named "Hope," an unsettling disconnection exacerbated by Sarah Polley's (The Sweet Hereafter) wan and tired features. The Claim contemplates 'hope' in a great many ways: Dillon's hope for the railroad and for redemption, a blousy Portuguese singer's (Milla Jovovich) hope for respectability, Dalglish's hope for emotional completion--but, like Polley, The Claim's "hope" is pallid and deceived.
Compared to the dying of the Western age captured in Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Eastwood's Unforgiven, I would offer Cormac McCarthy's "Border Trilogy" as further example of the evocation of nostalgia and the desperate rage against the dying of the light embodied by any fin de siècles in general and by Winterbottom's The Claim in particular. When Winterbottom shows a house dragged arduously through snow by sinew and horse-flesh as a gift to a wronged and dying woman, he as much as declares through a visual poetry that man is in eternal struggle against nature--both Fate's and his own. When a prospecting stage is accidentally destroyed on a frozen mountain pass by mishandled nitro-glycerin, sending a horse aflame and galloping away in agony, Winterbottom illustrates with dreadful clarity the price of man's intrusion and presaging the railroad's eventual domestication of the wild land.
The Claim portrays one man's struggle for redemption and another man's struggle for that moment requiring of redemption. It is a cyclical film (beginning and ending with the founding of a town) with archetypal characters (father/son aggressions, mother/daughter deceptions), and it is told like Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, through image and an almost instinctual understanding of the stories inherently related by a time and a place. The Claim is a quiet film, a fine film. If it loses its way a time or two with a subplot of love that honours the main plot, offering it no added resonance (as all subtexts must), it serves mainly to draw attention to the laudable stillness at its center--and to how close Winterbottom came, in spite of himself, to creating a definitive elegy for the passing of any age, and man's shivering smallness in that passing's noisome wake.
Suffering from a dearth of bonus materials, MGM/UA's DVD nonetheless boasts of a 2.35:1 widescreen anamorphic transfer that is stunning and consistently breathtaking. There is no diffusion nor noticeable edge-enhancement, and the color palette, admittedly limited to grays and blues, is pristine and faithful to Alwin Huchler's (Spiders and Flies) mute and crystalline colour scheme and lighting choices. The Claim is cold and sterile--even the interiors are shot in drab and over-warm browns as impersonal in their way as the blighted exteriors. The DVD captures that ironic lushness with an attention to detail that is praiseworthy. The Dolby 5.1 mix is given a surprisingly rich workout during the nitro mishap with the subwoofer rumbling contentedly, and the agony of dying men and horses ringing from all channels while, best yet, Michael Nyman's (Gattaca) typically understated and lovely score sounds crisp and beautiful. A fine theatrical trailer rounds out the disc. Originally published: July 15, 2001.