The Claim

dir Michael Winterbottom
scr Frank Cotrell Boyce
with Wes Bentley, Sarah Polley, Peter Mullan, Milla Jovovich, Nastasska Kinski, Sean McGinley, Shirley Henderson, Julian Richings, David Lereaney, Marie Brassard, Phillipa Peak, Kate Hennig
release US 29.Dec.00; UK 2.Feb.01
Pathe-UA 00/US-UK 2h01 3 out of 5 stars
This intriguing, snowy Western is at least great to look at, filled with terrific acting and a moving drama at its centre. Yet Winterbottom's problems as a director crop up once again as he fumbles the plot badly, sapping the events of their strength with an unfocussed narrative. At least there's a solid story underneath (it's based on Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge) with resonant themes beautifully brought out through the cinematography and performances.

Dillon (Mullan) is the scion of the town of Kingdom Come, high in the California Sierra Nevada. He maintains law and order, owns the gold mine, bank, saloon and brothel ... and has the town's most beautiful--and tough--woman (Jovovich) as a mistress. But three arrivals undo his well-established life. First is Dalglish (Bentley), who is scouting the route for the railway that would bring new riches to the town. And then after 20 years, Dillon's wife (Kinski) and now-grown daughter (Polley) show up to awaken a dark secret from his past.

There are so many riches in this film that it seems petty to complain about something like structure, but that's precisely the point: All of the provocative themes, detailed performances and gorgeous production values are undermined by a director who simply never lets the story emerge in its fullness (this same problem plagued Welcome to Sarajevo and With or Without You, although it actually strengthened the more off-handed Wonderland). This is especially frustrating because the details are all so excellent. Alwin Kuchler's cinematography is especially notable, capturing the Canadian Rockies (standing in for the Sierra Nevada) with astonishing beauty and drama. The production design is impeccable, from the tiniest set decoration to the recreated Gold Rush town itself. The adaptation of Hardy to the wintery Wild West is absolutely wonderful. And the cast is meticulous, clever, meaningful and moving ... even Jovovich! But Winterbottom never establishes an honest perspective on the story; we never feel the full force of the events that change the characters' lives forever. We have to instead settle a film full of dazzling moments that never quite add up to anything.

[15--themes, violence, language, nudity] 30.Jan.01

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2001 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall