Although The Claim, scripted by Frank Boyce Cottrell and directed by Michael Winterbottom, proclaims that it is "Based on the Thomas Hardy Novel The Mayor of Casterbridge" (cover of dvd 65935 13732), one of the chief merits of the 2000 film that has no counterpart in Hardy's 1886 text is "the dramatic backdrop of the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains" -- which screen-credits run at the closing of the film reveal are in fact the Colorado Rockies and the area around Banff National Park's Fortress Mountain on Canada's British Columbia/Alberta border. The mountain setting, like Egdon Heath in Hardy's The Return of the Native (1878), is an insistent presence that constantly reminds the audience that the story occurs on the frontier, far away from the culture and societal restrictions of the eastern United States and Western Europe.
Screenwriter Boyce Cottrell's altering the venue renders the key aspect of Hardy's plot, the wife sale two decades prior to the story's principal action, more plausible and enables the film to make explicit for the audience the symbolism inherent in the arrival from Sacramento of the Central Pacific Railroad survey crew: here is the Age of Technology supplanting the ethics and entrepreneurs of the previous era, as surely as Donald Farfrae's knowledge of modern business practices and farm machinery counterposes Michael Henchard's less formal knowledge derived purely from experience in Hardy's novel. The exchange of the Polish wife and infant for a rich gold claim in the California Gold Rush of 1849 transpires in the shadow not merely of the Sierra Nevada while a blizzard rages outside the haywired cabin of the original owner, Burn, but in a bygone, lawless epoch in which gold was the sole reason for Europeans to enter the savage region and Western society's imposition of its mores was tentative at best.
If the wife "exchange" is rendered more plausible by adjusting the time and place of the action, the plot rivalry between railroad surveyor and frontier mayor is rather less ably handled. According to images on the dvd cover and the "Image Gallery" of the film itself, this is the story of surveyor Dalglish's (Wes Bentley) having to choose between the innocent but morally correct mountain girl Hope Burn (called "Hope Dillon" in the credits) and the experienced bordello madam and dancehall singer Lucia (Milla Jovovich). The "Image Gallery," a pictorial cast-list implying appearance by order of importance, contains five stills: Sarah Polley as the normative "Hope Dillon," Peter Mullan as the brooding "Daniel Dillon" (equivalent to the novel's Michael Henchard), Milla Jovovich as Portugese immigrant and buisinesswoman Lucia (Lucy), Wes Bentley as engineer Dalglish, Nastassja Kinski as Elena (the film's Susan Henchard figure who, wracked by disease, returns to claim her first husband's assistance) and Peter Mullan (again), and finally director Michael Winterbottom on the set. In contradiction to the icon of Bentley flanked by Polley and Jovovich on the dvd cover and the film's program, the gallery underscores the overarching importance of Mullan's character, who comes second and appears twice in the five frames.
What connects the major figures, surveyor and mayor, in The Claim is not a prior relationship of protégé and mentor (as is the case with Farfrae and Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge), but the romantic interests afforded by Lucia -- the former mistress and alluring siren who becomes the founder of a new town in the valley bottom -- and Hope -- who resists acknowledging Dillon as anything but her mother's new husband, but who volunteers to join Dalglish on his expedition into the high country without so much as a formal introduction. Hope has only been told by her mother that Mr. Dillon is a "rich relation" when her mother at the beginning of the film gives her the glass necklace whose implications remain unexplained to the Mayor of Kingdom Come after they have settled into the hotel. Appropriately, Hope finds him presiding over the public whipping of a convicted claim-jumper, an event obviously relished by the almost entirely male crowd. Dillon calls her by name when she tells him the token comes from "Mrs. Burn," but again no explanation is offered.
Rather, we accompany the mayor to his cabin in the snows above the town, where he scrutinizes an old, silver-framed daguerreotype of a young couple and their infant (presumably, a picture of himself, the girl's mother, and the girl herself taken many years before). That he locates it so quickly in the old wooden box, and that it has been so well preserved both suggest its personal significance. Through the snows of memory, Dillon reverts to the time when he sold Elena and her child for the claim. Two figures struggle through the mountain white- out, the woman dragging a box (perhaps the very chest in which the photograph has been stored) on a sled, the man laden with an enormous pack. The young immigrant couple (who presumably met on shipboard or at their North American port of disembarkation) -- he from Dublin, she from Poland -- are down on their luck and need a break. Nursing her infant, Elena excites the attention of the host, whose gold is no compensation for loneliness: "I need a woman," he remarks. Having lost his kit and his mules, Dillon owns "nothing but her." Her retort is politically correct ("You don't own me."), but in no way prompts her to interfere with the bargain on which the two men shake hands.
The date initially superimposed on the screen, 1867, combined with Hope's afterward remarking to Dalglish that he parents were "Forty- niners," leads us to conclude that she is the infant of Dillon's flashback, and the film does nothing to contradict this assumption. We need to know nothing of rural Dorset's eighteenth-century folkways to find this rough and ready bargain believable, whereas late Victorian readers found the wife-sale of Hardy's flashback "unlikely." Although Hardy could point to newspaper reports of such events which transpired in Portland and Brighton (the Observer of 24 March 1833 reprinted a piece from Lancashire's Blackburn Gazette describing such a sale in the marketplace of Stockport), the book-reviewer for The Saturday Review for 29 May 1886 described the sale and the coincidences attendant upon it as a "fiction stranger than truth." A more receptive reviewer, writing in Harper's New Monthly Magazine for November 1886 (in response to the recent publication of the novel in two volumes by Smith, Elder in London and Henry Holt in New York) wished that the story had been "derived from some fact more commonly within the range of experience" of the common reader. The Claim has more than adequately addressed these improbabilities, but presents others instead. The film lays claim to our interest by virtue of its score and cinematography, but cannot entirely claim our credence or sympathy.
However, the film is but an extremely loose adaptation of the Hardyan original. For example, aside from the scenes of the daughter and mother arriving in the mayor's town and the flashback to the sale (the order reversed in the film), the two stories have little in common structurally. For example, the conflagration that Dillon sets to destroy his abandoned town has no counterpart in the novel, and does not, as Henchard's self-imposed exile from Casterbridge after Elizabeth- Jane's marriage to Farfrae, imbue the former mayor with an Aristotelian grandeur. At the conclusion, we are puzzled as to why Hope should weep for him, found frozen in the snow and Kingdom Come in cinders. When she discovers his body, she calls him "father," suggesting that she has finally accepted as true Dillon's account of events after Elena's dying of tuberculosis. The heart of the film, then, is Dillon's revealing to Hope that family daguerreotype introduced earlier in the shack that was a part of his original bargain with the man whom she had always regarded as her father. Even though confronted with such ocular proof that Dillon is her natural father, Hope joins the priest who has conducted her mother's funeral and returns to the valley-bottom just after the railroad director has welcomed the former denizens of Kingdom Come to the new centre of industry and prosperity, Lisboa (named by Lucia after her father's birthplace). Strangely, Hope feels no compunction about abandoning the man who has recently rescued her mother from poverty for another (admittedly, younger and more handsome) who seems curiously unable to articulate any romantic interest in her.
Upon the sole provocation of the railroad's taking a route closer to the river below, the population of Kingdom Come has packed up (despite the fact that presumably the gold claims remain above). And Dillon, upon the sole provocation of this general decampment and the coincidental loss of his wife, destroys the town in a cinematically splendid bit of pyrotechnics. Screenwriter Boyce Cotrell spares Dalglish the burden of abandoning Lucia to build the railroad because (he says) she will be the richest woman north of Sacramento and he will remain a poor railroad engineer. The screenwriter has wisely realized that, outside the demands of an overly scrupulous Victorian society, there is no necessity for the morally ambiguous Lucia (counterpart to the novel's Lucetta) to die merely because she has indulged in pre- marital sex with the story's male principals. Dalglish and Lucy part with no recriminations or regrets on either side, leaving the angst of parting and guilt over past misdeeds entirely to Mayor Dillon up in his great roundhouse, the wooden castle he has imported as a peace-offering for his ex-wife. Dillon's realisation that he had made amends too late to ameliorate a lifetime of hardship comes with Elena's tuberculosis becoming all too evident. Dillon has a second flashback, recalling his calling out her name after the blizzard had subsided and she had departed with Burn. Bereft a second time of wife and daughter, and his narrative brought full circle, he brings Kingdom Come and himself to an end not entirely motivated, given the little we have come to know about his character. The object lesson about the price of abandoning our loved-ones is clear, even if the motivations of Dillon and his "daughter" are not.
The Claim. Screenplay by Frank Boyce. Cottrell. Directed by Michael Winterbottom. BBC Films in conjunction with United Artists and MGM, 2000.
Last modified January 21, 2003