Weekend Film Recommendation: The Claim

Mark Twain said that “A ‘classic’ is a book that everyone praises and nobody reads”. I suspect that Thomas Hardy’s novels fall into this category. Admittedly, I think that because my dear mother suggested that I read “The Return of the Native”. After I finished it, I asked her why she recommended such a lousy book and she sheepishly confessed that she’d actually never got round to opening the copy she’d bought 40 years ago in a fit of high-mindedness.

But, whatever you think of Hardy’s “classic” novels, it’s hard to deny that they have resulted in some fine film adaptations. One of these is Michael Winterbottom’s 2000 Western The Claim. Loosely based on “The Mayor of Casterbridge”, the film tells the story of the Mayor of the town of Kingdom Come (a glum, effective Peter Mullan) whose considerable fortune and power derives from one awful, hidden sin early in his life. Fate comes to call in the form of the woman from his past (Nastassja Kinski) and her daughter (Sarah Polley, in an award-winning performance). Meanwhile, the Mayor must handle his tempestuous mistress (Milla Jovovich, who has sex appeal to burn) and the railroad engineer (Wes Bentley) who will decide whether the new line will run through Kingdom Come or not.

The tragic story the film tells may play out a bit more slowly than some viewers would prefer, but this gives the time and space for the strong cast to show us the multiple facets of their characters. Some people are worse than others, but no one in this movie is one-dimensional, which adds real psychic weight to the proceedings. Moreover, this is a staggeringly beautiful film at which to look, thanks to the Alberta scenery and Alwin Kuchler’s cinematography. Michael Nyman’s rich musical score also adds to the sensual pleasure.

Indeed, I liked The Claim so much that I forgave my mother for her book recommendation and let her watch my copy. She liked it too, even though I am pretty sure she never read the Mayor of Casterbridge either.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

7 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: The Claim”

  1. I’ve never seen the film, but that trailer is truly awful. There are some longish (5 seconds long) shots in the beginning, to go under some text, but once people start speaking I don’t think a single shot is held for even two full seconds. As all the scenes are visually quite complex, the result was to give me motion sickness. I assume (hope?) the actual movie isn’t like this, but it was not good advertising.

  2. Apart from Henry James, Thomas Hardy seems to me the best novelist in the English language of the later 19th century – and what’s shocking is that his poetry might be even better. My first experience with Hardy was in junior year of high school, when I pretty much hated everything that we had to read for class. So I went to Barnes and Noble one day to look for a book to read that might seem halfway relevant to the world, and I saw “Jude the Obscure,” and on the back cover, the blurb described the ending as “one of the most shocking in literature.” So I picked it up, and trudged through the first few chapters, not ever having read Hardy and so not really getting his style. But eventually, I came around to it, and the emotional build-up that’s produced through the cadences of his sentences made it pleasurable, as well as horribly depressing, reading, and when I finally did come to the climax, I had never felt such a feeling from reading before. It was the first book that really pushed me to believe that literature could have its own domain of knowledge, and it’s been integral to my personal and political thought ever since, perhaps the first book that helped define the “adult” me.

  3. It amazes me that Dickens (with his caricatures and coincidence-riddled plots, contrived to the point of absurdity) is so revered. Hardy is by far the greater author; Austen, superior to either in quality, falling behind only in terms of output.

  4. Dont give up on Hardy. Try Jude, or Mayor of Casterbridge.

    … I never liked Dickens either.

  5. Agreeing mostly with the commenters, but no need to attack Dickens. I love Dickens and Hardy. Start with “Mayor of Casterbridge” to get “into” Hardy. From there, go for “Wessex Tales” and “Life’s Little Ironies”, which are character sketch short stories that anticipate John Steinbeck in a way that should be surprising. For the other novels, “Tess” and “Jude” are great examples of Hardy understanding how 19th Century culture (the kind Rick Santorum finds so idealistically wonderful) are truly oppressive to women. These are feminist novels that also deal with the general point of a sexual liberation that is not libertine, but gentle and humane. Plus, once one begins to really read Hardy, one realizes his artistry in writing prose in a poetic style. The opening paragraph in “Mayor of Casterbridge” is a marvel of prose writing.

    As for Dickens, reading him helps us understand the cruelty that accompanies capitalism and private enterprise. We also understand how governments act on behalf of private interests and how cultural attacks on the poor are structured. One thinks of Gradgrind in “Hard Times,” or the magistrates and others in official positions in “Oliver Twist,” to take two more obvious examples. And “Nicholas Nickelby” is absolutely spot on with its understanding of how culture and economics pulsate in a society.

    Very few writers attain the sublimity of Hardy and Dickens. It is not impossible their levels, but it remains rare for any writer to achieve.

  6. I love Hardy. And I love “Far from the Madding Crowd” with Alan Bates and Julie Christie.

  7. I read Mayor of Casterbridge in high school and did not care for Hardy’s characters (and in other books read later) always and with eyes wide open making the life choices that will inevitably make them miserable. I might appreciate the social pressures better now that pushed them to do so. Certainly I found Jude powerful, reading it well after high school. Our society (well, our non-Santorum society) has little patience for the deadly sins that so blighted Hardy’s characters’ lives.

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