The Mayor Of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy’s classic novel of transgression, repentance, and redemption denied has been morphed by director Michael Winterbottom (Wonderland, Welcome to Sarajevo) into an epic Western, shifting the locale from Dorchester, England to California’s Sierra Nevada during the gold rush. With adventurers in search of fortune and the harsh punishment of the Sierra winter providing ample metaphorical context, Winterbottom succeeds in spinning the complicated tale with clarity and placing it in landscapes that Hardy would surely have approved, landscapes that dominate and condition the lives of the people within them. Would that Winterbottom had been equally successful at infusing his characters with life.
As told in a flashback, Daniel Dillon (Peter Mullan), a novice prospector, traveling through a blizzard with his wife and baby, is offered shelter in a mountain cabin by a seasoned and successful veteran of the gold rush who now sees a family as more valuable than the golden nuggets he has collected in his lonely outpost. Dillon trades away his wife and child in exchange for the prospector’s claim.
The film starts some years later. Dillon has become wealthy and powerful, virtually owning a gold rush town called Kingdom Come. [John Masefield: "And he who gives a child a home/Builds palaces in Kingdom come."] Winterbottom creates a strong sense of place with his bustling town, its edge of grittiness a direct descendent of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, if somewhat less funky. A generation after the Altman film, Winterbottom has wider freedom to display the wanton sexuality of the frontier, full of men without wives and well-stocked with willing prostitutes. The latter, the brothel and the saloon are a fiefdom within Dillon’s kingdom, ruled over by his mistress, Lucia (Milla Jovovich), a Portuguese chanteuse.
Arriving on the stagecoach are Elena (Nastassja Kinski) and daughter Hope (Sarah Polley), the family that Dillon sold off those years ago, an act he has regretted ever since. Elena’s prospector husband has died and she has a terminal illness; she has come to Dillon seeking security for their daughter. Abandoning Lucia now almost as brutally as he had earlier abandoned Elena, Dillon remarries her. The fifth player in this quintet of misplaced affections is Dalglish (Wes Bentley), an ambitious surveyor for the railroad company, building the first transcontinental railroad.
Despite the strength of Hardy’s novel as its backbone and an intelligent screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Hilary and Jackie), The Claim fails to generate identification with the players and their various plights; they never really jell as an ensemble nor do they individually emerge as realized characters of complexity. They each are there to fit into machinations of the plot, but it all lies as flat as a jigsaw puzzle. This is not surprising in the case of Jovovich, who gave easily the worst performance of the last decade playing Joan of Arc as a Valley Girl in the abysmal The Messenger. She does no better as a hooker than she did as a saint, reciting lines as if all her effort was expended simply remembering them.
On the other hand, more was expected from Peter Mullan in the pivotal role of Dillon. Mullan’s knockout performance in My Name is Joe (a sadly underseen film, available on video and highly recommended) won him the Best Actor nod at Cannes. But Winterbottom has Mullan turn all the emotion within, not a great strategy for a character whose guilt and regret are at the core of the film’s theme. No passion comes to the surface when, like Silas Marner, he is surrounded by his bricks of bullion, or in his last great dramatic gesture, which offers about as much emotional punch as watching a pilot light burn. Two and a half hours of Scottish stoicism is about two and a quarter hours beyond the point.
Kinski is sympathetic as Elena, showing the emotional vulnerability of her powerless position–forced to beg from the man who (literally) sold her out. The role doesn’t give her much else to do, although she does operatically well with her extended dying scene. (What prompted Winterbottom to draw that scene out so far beyond the importance of its content?) Sarah Polley, a fine young actress who ran away with the show in Guinevere, is also boxed into a one-dimensional reading of her role as Hope: all soft, airy-voiced girlish vulnerability, belying her supposed strength and frontier grit. Wes Bentley alone seemed genuinely comfortable in the surroundings and his smile charms the pants off of just about every woman in sight. But the function of the Dalglish character, counterbalancing Dillon, has been diluted by the script here, rendering his role far less interesting than it might have been.
Production values are first rate, with exteriors in cold blues and greys and snowy whites, interiors in golden kerosene-lamp-lit hues. And there are some fine moments of spectacle – an avalanche seen from a distance like a waterfall of snow, a house being moved through the snowy forest to a new location (reminiscent of, but not as profoundly motivated as the church moving in Oscar and Lucinda or the ship moved overland through the jungle in Fitzcarraldo).