In 1867, the town of Kingdom Come is run by one man – Daniel Dillon (Peter Mullan).
He not only owns every building, but his mistress Lucia (Milla Jovovich) runs the saloon
and bordello. Two events disrupt the ordered serenity of the town. The stagecoach brings
Ellen Burn (Nastassja Kinski) and her daughter Hope (Sarah Polley) to town –
ostensibly to visit a relative. Then from the wilderness, a group of men led by Dalgliesh
(Wes Bentley) arrives. They’re a survey team from the railroad company, looking for a
way through California’s Sierra Nevada mountains for the trans-continental railway. A
station in Kingdom Come would change the town’s fortunes. And the two sets of
visitors will change Dillon and Kingdom Come forever.
In popular culture, there are few mythologies as powerful as that of "the
West". From Roy Rogers to Clint Eastwood, audiences have always loved the genre. Now
Michael Winterbottom both redefines the Western and confirms its power as he transplants
that very English story The Mayor of Casterbridge (by Thomas Hardy) to the California
mountains. In common with many other Westerns, the authority figure (Dillon) is deeply
flawed – in this case by something he did many years before. But unlike the
archetypal Western, it’s not a gunslinger who rides into town to herald that change
is in the wind; it’s two women and a surveyor. Winterbottom then sets about creating
one of the most visually stunning and deeply involving films I’ve seen for quite a
while. The Claim evolves at a very deliberate pace; which may infuriate some. But like
much of Hardy’s dense writing, the tale needs time to develop. Amidst majestic
snow-covered mountains, Winterbottom is provided with the perfect backdrop to stage some
of the most spectacular scenes ever committed to film. He also captures a credible
frontier spirit – showing us a time when conditions were harsh and the railroad
(something we take for granted) literally meant the difference between life and death. The
cast – a blend of younger actors and screen veterans – works tightly as an
ensemble; with Wes Bentley and Sarah Polley both adding to their growing reputations.
Nastassja Kinski is convincing as the fated Ellen and in Lucia, Milla Jovovich has finally
chosen a role which allows her to display her talents without affectation. But Peter
Mullan towers over this film. His brogue is tinted with the faintest American twang and he
gives a tour-de-force performance as Dillon. The Claim has divided critics and audiences
alike – a real love-it-or-hate-it proposition. But for its visual brilliance, tight
and intelligent scripting, great acting and sheer intensity, I loved it.
The picturesque snowy village nestled beneath fir covered mountains effects such
cinematic grace, that it is exquisitely beautiful to observe. And observe it we do for
much of this leisurely told tale of the last frontier, allowing the physicality to give us
a real sense of place. But life in the 1860s post gold rush is tough and we soon
understand how difficult it is. Michael Winterbottom's saga from Thomas Hardy's book is
both ambitious and risky. The very essence of the story relies heavily on understanding
the way of life and the mindset of the characters. So getting the most out of The Claim
requires considerable patience, as the morality tale unfolds slowly and surely over two
hours. The script is intelligent, while the lensing of Alwin Kuchler is superb, showcasing
the setting to perfection. The exterior shots show off the landscape, while interiors rely
on very tight close ups – so intimate that the images are blurred. At times it is
difficult to distinguish whose face or what body part fills the entirety of the screen.
The contrast is as acute as the fire's heat and the chill of snow. Mark Tildesley's
production design effects by its simplicity and Michael Nyman's themes pound relentlessly.
Nyman's distinctive music is both effective and irritating. Its repetitive nature hammers
claustrophobic dizziness, at the same time bringing a unique uniformity to this bleak
environment. A strong cast, well directed, bring the characters to life: Peter Mullan's
Daniel Dillon, a man wracked with guilt and regret; Wes Bentley's enigmatic Dalgliesh (it
is extraordinary to realise that the charismatic star of American Beauty is only 22 years
old); Milla Jovovich, her heart on display. Ironic that the three women (played by
Jovovich, Polley and Kinski) are so totally different, yet each search for the same thing.
Visually haunting, The Claim is engrossing cinema.
Michael Winterbottom always gets the sense of place just right, projecting his audience
into his cinematic world with great alacrity and detail. The Claim draws us instantly into
the isolated frontier village of the late 19th century, but unlike most Western
set movies, the climate is snowbound and the horizon grey. Not the people, though.
Winterbottom has chosen a cast (not repeated previous castings) and as the old truism has
it, that is 80% of the work done. Wes Bentley is terrific as a classic hero who is given
some room to falter, and Peter Mullan is a solid counterweight as the man who has to
confront his past and wear the pain; he welds the film’s drama to its humanity.
Bentley here is often reminiscent of a young Clint Eastwood – without the Colt 45,
but with that same clear eyed look that blends determination and deceny, with an edgy
touch. The three central women are the emotional power source for the drama, though, and
Milla Jovovich does her finest work here. All three are admirable, though, and there is
never too much glamour in their presence – but then Winterbottom is English, after
all. The redemptive theme is American (like the setting), while the style of the story is
English (like the original novel) and the subject matter universal. It’s universal
because it is the story that is triggered when a single, unique individual makes a life
altering decision under duress. This is valid stuff, and worth the effort. Too long it
might be, but it’s so darn well done.
Andrew L. Urban
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CLAIM, THE (M15+)
CAST: Wes Bentley, Milla Jovovich, Nastassja Kinski, Peter Mullan, Sarah Polley
PRODUCERS: Andrew Eaton
DIRECTOR: Michael Winterbottom
SCRIPT: Frank Cottrell Boyce (novel, Thomas Hardy)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Alwin Kuchler
EDITOR: Trevor Waite
MUSIC: Michael Nyman
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Mark Tildesley
RUNNING TIME: 121 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Fox
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 29, 2001 in Sydney & Melbourne; other states to