Director Michael Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce
have enjoyed a long and fruitful (although not exclusive) collaboration that
has spanned more than a decade and encompassed such diverse projects
as BUTTERFLY KISS, JUDE and WELCOME TO SARAJEVO. As a director,
Winterbottom never takes the easy road, infusing his movies with an sense
of immediacy and experience. Using unorthodox camera angles and
compositions, he draws the audience into whatever the world he is depicting.
His work owes a debt to masters like Bergman (whom he profiled in two
documentaries) and Truffaut in its humanistic, unsentimental approach. In
2000, American audiences were treated to his meditation on a contemporary
British family in WONDERLAND and, at the end of the year, THE CLAIM,
an adaptation of Thomas Hardy's novel The Mayor of Castorbridge that
moved the action to 19th-century California.
As scripted by Cottrell Boyce, THE CLAIM finds equivalents to Hardy's
story. As a youthful Irish immigrant seeking his fortune in the Gold Rush,
Daniel Dillon sells his Polish-born wife Elena and their daughter Hope to a
miner named Burn. In return, Dillon receives a claim that eventually yielded
a fortune in gold, allowing him to build the town of Kingdom Come in the
Sierra Nevada mountains. The action of the film unfolds some twenty years
after the transaction when the Gold Rush is a thing of the past. The
respected Mr. Dillon is the richest man in town, owner of the hotel, saloon,
and bank. Although he has not forgotten his past, he has forged a romantic
liaison with Lucia (Milla Jovovich), a saloon singer and brothel owner. For
the most part, he is content.
One fateful day, however, brings two arrivals to the town: Donald
Daglish (Wes Bentley) a surveyor whom Dillon hopes will see fit to
recommend the railroad to pass through thereby assuring prosperity, and
his estranged wife (Nastassja Kinski) and grown daughter (Sarah Polley).
Elena is now terminally ill and has arrived in the small hamlet hoping her
estranged husband will agree to provide for Hope.
Winterbottom and his cinematographer Alwin H Kuchler and production
designer Ken Rempel were obviously inspired by Robert Altman's seminal
Western MCCABE & MRS. MILLER in capturing the town of Kingdom Come
in its rustic glory. Shot on location in the Canadian Rockies, THE CLAIM
has the feeling of a series of photographs come to life. The natural beauty
jumps off the screen and the wintry feeling is a perfect complement to
the story. There's one sequence in which a house is literally carried up a
mountain that is amazing, recalling the scene of the glass cathedral in
OSCAR AND LUCINDA or a similar one in THE WIDOW OF SAINT PIERRE.
Peter Mullan, who has emerged over the last couple of years as a
potent screen presence, anchors the film with a strong performance as
Dillon. He not only captures the swagger of a wealthy self-made man, but
also mines the reservoirs of guilt Dillon has over his fateful decision.
Wes Bentley is less effective as the railroad representative and Milla
Jovovich seems too young to be playing a worldly chanteuse turned brothel
owner. Nastassja Kinski (who starred in the film version of Hardy's
Tess of the D'Urbervilles) lends her fragile beauty to the underwritten role
of Elena. The amazing Sarah Polley adds yet another fine credit to her
growing resume. This young Canadian actress rarely strikes a false note
and her complex rendering of the innocent Hope matches Mullan's work
as the film's most fully realized.
THE CLAIM will probably not appeal to every filmgoer's taste. Those
seeking a truly revisionist take on the American Western should hasten
to see it as should anyone interested in the fascinating career of one of
contemporary cinema's most visually imaginative and unsentimentally
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 120 mins.
|© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.