In 1995, versatile British director Michael Winterbottom did a filmization of Thomas Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure,” omitting the article and adjective in the title. It was a powerful, beautifully gauged piece of work which, for some reason, went unappreciated by critics and (more understandably, considering its dour, downbeat mood) the public. Now he’s turned to Hardy’s “The Mayor of Casterbridge,” and the result is much less compelling, though made with the director’s usual craft and intelligence.
“The Claim” is actually only tenuously based on the novel, which is probably a good thing–it would seem almost impossible today to make a really faithful version of Hardy’s tale, which focuses on individuals connected with the vagaries of English wheat futures and Corn Laws in the late nineteenth century. (Well, actually one could make it, I suppose, but I suspect it would be awfully hard to find anyone willing to watch it. In making this statement I must confess that I haven’t had the opportunity to see the 1978 British miniseries of the book–perhaps, since it was scripted by the talented Dennis Potter, it managed to overcome the obvious difficulties. But it seems unlikely.) What Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce have done, therefore, is to scrap the British setting, along with a number of the all-too-numerous ironic plot twists fashioned by Hardy–which don’t strain credulity on the printed page, perhaps, but would seem almost absurd when condensed into the span of a two-hour film. What the scenario retains is basically the basic premise of a man who sells his wife and child to another when he finds himself in desperate straits, and the way in which their reappearance many years later, after he’s achieved a measure of power and respect, sets into motion a chain of misfortunes which ultimately dooms him. The notion, as Hardy succinctly puts it at one point in the novel, that “Character is Fate” remains central to the adaptation as well as the book.
But the film changes the scene of the story to the American Sierra Nevada in the late 1860s, roughly two decades after the great Gold Rush, and transforms the figure of the mayor–in the book a local wheat-dealer whose prosperity has made him one of the leading figures in an English trading village–into Daniel Dillon (Peter Mullan), the aggressive lord of a vibrant but still-primitive mining town called Kingdom Come. The younger man who eventually challenges his authority isn’t a Scotsman who first serves as the mayor’s major domo in the grain business, but Dalglish (Wes Bentley), a surveyor with the Central Pacific railway whose decision where to lay track will determine the future of Dillon’s settlement. The other major characters are the ill Elena (Nastassja Kinski), the wife Dillon sold years before; her daughter Hope (Sarah Polley), who doesn’t know her true father’s identity; and Lucia (Milla Jovovich), here the owner of the town brothel, with whom Dillon has long had an amorous relationship. In this telling, Dalglish gets involved with them all (though not quite in the same ways that Hardy contrives for their models in “Casterbridge”), and the end result is Dillon’s fall from power and his loss of the human connections he had once thrown cavalierly away and now is desperate to rebuild.
It’s possible to imagine that the germ of this narrative, which even in Hardy’s days must have strained credulity, could still serve as the basis for an affecting work. (And the British miniseries may have been such.) The problem with Winterbottom’s version is that it’s too fragmented and emotionally opaque to register very deeply. The basis problem is that the figure of Dillon should be the centerpiece of the piece–he is, after all, the flawed tragic hero–but though Mullan, a gifted actor, strives to invest him with the sort of resonance that would touch an audience, the writer and director shift the focus from him too frequently to allow the characterization to possess the doomed dimension it needs to generate an audience’s painful awe at the man’s ultimate fall. Nor does the script manage to flesh out the other leading figures very successfully, despite the time spent on them. As drawn here, Dalglish represents little more than ambition, and his feelings toward both Hope and Lucia are never made really clear; it doesn’t help that Bentley’s performance is wooden, either. Neither Jovovich nor Kinski brings her character to life beyond the merest externals, and Polley, while as lovely as ever, seems withdrawn and pallid as Hope.
What remains is the gorgeous look of the picture. The cinematography by Alwin Kuchler is splendid, replicating the sense of bleak beauty which marked “Jude” and capturing the snowswept mountain vistas with a wonderfully burnished tone. (The result is reminiscent of the look of Robert Altman’s 1971 “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” but also of Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate”). One sequence in particular, in which a massive house is shown being dragged through great masses of snow-covered trees, is eerily lovely. An episode near the close depicting Kingdom Come consumed by fire is also visually impressive. But such eye-catching moments (unfortunately accompanied by another nondescript score from Michael Nyman) can’t make up for the general shapelessness of the narrative and Winterbottom’s failure to make the characters truly come alive. Ultimately “The Claim,” while nice to look at, proves dramatically limp, failing to move us at the tragic fate of its mayor. As such it might have been inspired by Hardy’s novel, but it certainly doesn’t live up to it.