The Claim (2001) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The recipe: McCabe and Mr Hardy. (WARNING: LOTS OF SPOILERS)

The movie business can be heartbreaking. Place yourself in the shoes of this director. 

He took an enduring work of literature, Thomas Hardy's "The Mayor of Casterbridge", and adapted it loosely, but successfully, to a mountain mining town in the American West, retaining its spiritual integrity. That isn't an easy thing to do. Hardy's unique contribution to literature is that he brought the grand themes of Greek tragedy to Victorian Dorsetshire, so that he managed to combine an intimate knowledge of the customs and speech of Southwest England with an understanding of how those regional lives played out in the cosmic plane. Taking Hardy out of "Wessex" is a tricky thing to do.

The director spent months building the sets and getting the period details to look just right, including persuading a bunch of vain actors to have the correct dentition for the times. He filmed and refilmed magnificent scenes in the Rockies in Alberta and Colorado in just the right light and filters to capture the mood he wanted. He even pulled a Fitzcarraldo, and dragged an entire house up a mountainside on camera. He spent more months backing the film up with Michael Nyman's beautiful semi-classical score, which captured and highlighted the moments, from the bleakest to the most triumphant. When he got the film released, the most influential movie critic in the world loved it, and gave it three and a half stars in his column, plus a double upraised thumb in his TV show.

The film was still in theaters the week of May 20th.

But I am writing this on June 22nd, one month later, having already seen it on DVD. The total domestic gross was $403,000. It was never expanded beyond 29 screens. The theatrical distribution was a failure and was simply abandoned.

The movie business can be heartbreaking. 


none of the stars (Jovovich, Polley, Kinski) show any flesh, but four miscellaneous hookers are seen in various stages of undress, including a full frontal.
What went wrong? I suppose the real answer is probably more complex than this, but the simplified explanation is that he made a beautiful movie, one that moves very deliberately, true in spirit and tone to its literary roots.

But the market for that particular product is minute. That's pretty much the end of the story.

Damn, is it sincere.

Damn, is it boring

Bring on the bread and circus games.

The plot is this: a young woman and her dying mother arrive in Kingdom Come, a tiny gold mining town in the mountains of Northern California. What in the world would persuade them to go to such a place? The entire rinky-dink town is a few shops and a bordello (what else is there to do in the mountains in Winter?), all basically controlled by the guy who owns the mine, and it turns out that he managed to amass this incredible wealth by trading his wife and infant daughter for the claim to the mine.

Now test your ability to predict what will happen in a 19th century novel. Guess who the new arrivals in town might be. Guess what will happen to the mother. Guess what will happen when the daughter finds out who her father is, and that he got rich by selling her. Guess what he will do then. Sigh. There have been times in my life when I have wondered if Charles Dickens was a total idiot, until I realize that everyone else in the century milked the same kind of cow. Pick up a 19th century novel and get ready for the dramatic and tragic coincidences, the pessimism, the cynical view of human nature, and each character's inability to forgive himself or anyone else.

Actually, in the novel there were far more silly and impossible plot twists that the movie wisely ignored (1) Just as Mr Big finally convinces the girl that she's his daughter, they read a note that the mother left behind after her death, saying that Mr Big's daughter died, and the girl with her was actually the daughter of the guy who bought them. Yeah, I know what you're thinking. Victorian writers probably didn't have to take math in school, and they were apparently incapable of understanding that you can't have an 18 year old daughter by a wife you haven't seen for 21 years. Presumably Mr Big's math was as bad as Hardy's, despite his business acumen (2) the real father of the girl, presumed dead, not only is still alive, but shows up in Casterbridge! Yeah, I know, what are the chances?

Look, they thought this kind of crap was great stuff back then. I mean, what are the chances of Moll Flanders ending up having a happy affair in America, finally finding happiness and prosperity after all the misery in her life, then finding out that her lover was her own son? There must have been some LSD in the drinking water in England in the 19th century. Actually, to be fair, even the dim witted Victorian critics realized that Hardy's plotting was improbable (and improbable by their standards was very improbable indeed!), but he was admired for his style, and for doing his homework on the history and dialect of the region.

The screenwriter made two other good choices, in my estimation. 

  • In the novel, Mr Big didn't get rich based upon what he received from selling his family. He sold them at a drunken auction, and received very little for them, as I recall. They were purchased by a sailor. To me, it is an improvement in the plot to have him get rich based upon the very wickedness of his act, thereby magnifying his guilt a millionfold.
  • In the novel, Mr Big died in obscurity, with no great fortune, according to his wishes. (In his last years, he was tended by the man he whipped! You see, the whipping saved the guy from a far worse fate, and ... never mind). The screenwriter had him burn down his town and commit suicide while still wealthy, and the final scene shows the working people foraging and fighting each other for his bars of gold. I think Hardy would have found that most satisfactory, both in its portrayal of man's greed, and in its statement that Big Guy's wealth was meaningless to him because of the misery it caused him, and his daughter. Those elements were not in the novel, but they are a good change.

I felt there were a couple of things that didn't work as well. 

  • When Kinski and Mister Big met again after twenty years, there didn't seem to be any spark of any kind between them. They reacted about the same as if she had just been out to 7-Eleven, getting a pack of Luckies.
  • The sub-plot about the railroad surveyors seemed to be tagged on with minimal forethought. I think the only purpose, besides some beautiful photography of a narrow gauge railroad in Colorado, was to give the daughter a prospective boyfriend who was at odds with Mister Big. When Big went back to his long-lost wife, the railroad guy (Wes Bentley) slipped right into the bed of his mistress, while simultaneously flirting with his daughter. This is, more or less, what happened in the Hardy novel. So they needed the Bentley character to substitute for Farfrae with the women and also to vie with Mr Big for the control of the town's fate. But, hell, he could have been a postman, and they didn't give him a clearly defined character. They really didn't ask Wes Bentley to do anything except stand and be photographed. The railroad sub-plot provided some great photographic opportunities, but slowed down an already crawling pace.

Anyway, the team has a solid collective resume when it comes to interpreting Thomas Hardy. Twenty years ago, Nastassja Kinski was Tess in Polanski's version of "Tess of the D'Urbervilles". The director Michael Winterbottom earlier filmed a version of "Jude the Obscure". I guess they know their stuff. Frankly, this film only took the barest outline of a plot from Hardy, but it held his spirit intact.

The performances are generally solid, although everyone was apparently instructed to perform in a muted, mumbling, underacting style that makes the low-octane film even more soporific. Even on her best day, Kinski's energy level is not likely to earn her the lead in an Ethel Merman biopic, but in this film she plays a weak, dying woman, so she mumbles even more quietly than usual. On the other hand, I reckon that is what she was supposed to do.  They all made a sincere and generally successful attempt to capture the spirit of Thomas Hardy.


DVD info from Amazon

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 2.35:1

  • no meaningful features

 Milla Jovovich once again showed her dedication to becoming a serious actress. She was downright homely, she had ugly teeth, and she sang unbearably. Of course, she is normally lovely, has a radiant smile, and has had a fairly successful singing career, so she was willing to do what was necessary to develop the character. Sarah Polley was similarly dedicated in the role of the daughter.

If all that sounds good to you, the execution is excellent. They did what they tried to do. The fact that a film has a miniscule audience doesn't make it a bad film. You might be in that miniscule group. Some reviewers loved it.

But the movie business can be heartbreaking. 

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: nearly three and a half stars. Ebert 3.5/4, Apollo 82.

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. 60% positive overall, 53% from the top critics.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.2
  • With their dollars ... theatrical distribution aborted. $400,000. 29 screens.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. Beautiful photography and score, but soporific pacing and no energy. Just call it "Chariots of Snow".

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