There's a majesty to Michael Winterbottom's new film, a majesty and a terrible, icy chill. There's also a fair bit of invention, as the director of the wrenching Jude -- based on Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure -- has shifted the locus of that author's fierce, beloved English west country to the much fiercer Sierra Nevada mountains of Northern California. Set 20 years after the Gold Rush of 1849 -- one of the single largest migrations in human history -- The Claim focuses on the tiny town of Kingdom Come (which was also the film's working title), a lofty wooden outpost sprouting from a frozen, mountainous wilderness. Here high hopes mingle with harsh exploitation as a frontier is slowly carved up by human desires.
Once again proving himself an exceptional Hardy boy -- like Polanski with Tess before him -- Winterbottom has turned to The Mayor of Casterbridge for his inspiration this time around. As we explore the town -- from its glorious vistas to its ramshackle structures, from its shifty lackeys to its two-bit chippies -- self-appointed mayor Daniel Dillon (Peter Mullan, star of My Name Is Joe, director of Orphans) is clearly established as the law. There's a restlessness afoot, a sense of great transition as cultures clash and nobody knows exactly what he or she is doing out in the frozen wastes, so Dillon, the richest man in Kingdom Come by far, holds court not only as mayor but as king.
These are the days of great railroad expansions, when surveyors could either win people's favor or catch a rope around the neck, depending upon how close they laid their tracks to a civilized center. When the Central Pacific Railroad sends young Mr. Dalglish (Wes Bentley) and his crew into town, they are greeted with drinks and a furtive throw or two in the bordello, but an easiness drifts in beside them. Dalglish finds himself instantly enamored of saucy Lucia (Milla Jovovich, simultaneously conveying both radiance and exhaustion), who works triple duty as madam, cabaret singer, and Dillon's love slave. As he observes, however, when one of his men is personally whipped by Dillon for petty robbery, this is not a system to be trifled with.
Complicating matters a young lady named Hope (Sarah Polley) has floated into town and taken an almost immediate shine to Dalglish. "It must be exciting to be out in the wilderness with lynch mobs and grizzly bears and wild Indians!" she cajoles, quickly becoming his biggest admirer, tagging along with him on surveying expeditions. After some requisite explosions, avalanches, and romantic subplots, as well as the substitution of Michael Nyman's melodramatic score for the lilting Leonard Cohen songs in Robert Altman's similar McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the plot thickens. Hope's mother, a strange, sickly woman named Elena (Nastassja Kinski), has attracted the undivided attention of Dillon, setting in motion a chain of events that will forever transform Kingdom Come.
To say the least, The Claim is a tremendously ambitious project, what with the literary pedigree, the sheer enormity of the environment, and the crates of lip balm and long underwear the crew undoubtedly demanded be shipped in. Unfortunately the movie is a bit sluggish at times, and editing by Trevor Waite occasionally leans toward the vague, confusing side of artfulness, but it's impressive work nonetheless. What's surprising is that, after his warm Wonderland, ferocious Butterfly Kiss, and harsh tour de force of Jude, The Claim feels just a little bit distant, even at times emotionally aloof. Perhaps there's simply too much reverence for the genre -- the British do adore their Westerns, and the movie was cofunded by the BBC and the Arts Council of England -- because the film is simply too pretty to be gritty.
Oddly Wes Bentley -- considered a hot property after American Beauty -- really doesn't have much to do except wander around looking suitably unwashed. Much more vital and compelling are Kinski (who surely knows her Hardy tragedy after Tess) and Mullan, who just about drench the screen with their shared sorrow. Polley gives the film a much needed lift, lighting up the toiling extras around her, as do Shirley Henderson (Wonderland, Topsy-Turvy) as a hopeful prostitute and Sean McGinley (The Closer You Get) as Dillon's determined right-hand man. And at the film's center is Jovovich, carrying off her Portuguese entrepreneur with surprising gravity and verve. Listening to her sing in the saloon, one only wishes she would give the commercial modeling a rest and return to the musical craft of her superb first album, The Divine Comedy.
No comedy itself but imbued with a slight sense of humor to battle the chill, The Claim is as compelling for what it represents as for what it delivers. Like much of Hardy, its drama is forced and manipulative (functional only in an alternate universe in which women agree to be sold as property), but -- thanks to luminous frames from cinematographer Alwin Kuchler -- it's as rich as some of the author's most sensuous passages.
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