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.