The Claim takes shape from two sources. The plot is from Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, a great and beautiful novel that seems reasonably available for adaptation to the frozen California Gold Rush era. The style is taken from Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, that gorgeous 1971 revisionist western shot in the Northwest rain and snow.
Along with a great novelist’s assumed ability to peer into the human soul and all that, Thomas Hardy added two key obsessions: land and time. Hardy knew the soil of his English countryside, knew the trees and animals, and the way a footpath connects farms and destinies. He also knew how the turning of the seasons affected people, and how those same footpaths resonated with the steps of ancestors near and distant.
Thomas Vinterberg’s new version of Far From the Madding Crowd gets just about all of that wrong. And immediately, too: The film throws away the great moment when Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan)—having assured herself that no one could be watching—leans back on her horse in an unladylike manner, a gesture surreptitiously witnessed by salt-of-the-earth farmer Gabriel Oak (Belgian rising star Matthias Schoenaerts). If a movie can’t understand how that gesture shapes the futures of these characters, it won’t get much else right.