Michael Winterbottom’s an odd one for me. I appreciate his talent, and his films clearly don’t compare to anyone else’s – they’re always very clearly Michael Winterbottom films. I like that he doesn’t tell me how to feel about his characters and their actions. At the same time, though, I sometimes end up not feeling anything much; I watch his films feeling remote and strangely indifferent. It’s as if I have to take a conscious decision to care about his characters.
I first watched The Claim, his loose adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, years ago. I didn’t dislike it, but the film felt cold and distancing – which wasn’t what I’d been expecting after reading Hardy’s novel. Winterbottom’s earlier film based on Hardy, Jude (wisely leaving out the Obscure part in its title), pretty much came across as an exact translation of one of English literature’s most depressing books into celluloid. (The very ending of the book was gone, but that only meant the film was depressing rather than suicidally depressing.) The original novel came through so strongly, I couldn’t see a director’s handwriting in the film, nor did I need to.
The Claim was perhaps the second or third film by the director that I’d seen, and to some extent it felt like I didn’t fully understand Winterbottom’s idiom. I only got the coldness that crept out of almost every single shot of the film, muting the emotions. Then, some years later, I saw the director’s Wonderland, and while it didn’t turn me into a Michael Winterbottom fan, it helped me see things in his approach and style that I hadn’t been able to see before.
Having rewatched The Claim, I’d say that the film has rewarded my renewed attention. The film is no longer Hardy’s Mayor, but it is a worthwhile take on the original, evoking its own flavour. The casting is pretty much pitch-perfect, especially with Peter Mullan, the go-to man for stubborn, self-destructive men who should know better but who eventually don’t have the strength to act on this knowledge. And the muted, remote style keep the story from becoming melodramatic; instead we’re invited to observe and eventually mourn from a distance. It’s pretty much the opposite of the easy emotions of a Spielberg or a Ron Howard – the film isn’t conventionally touching or moving, it gives you a choice and asks you to act on this choice: will you become involved, or will you remain cold and distant? Do you want to be touched by this? Because, if you do, you need to know that it may hurt. It may get close, closer than is comfortable. That is the proposition the film makes, like Wonderland, and that I’ve come to find not just puzzling but, in equal measures, beguiling.