[Written for Film.com]
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.
This “inspired by” approach can be a fruitful way of making films. The Claim, however, seems suffocated by its sources. The elegant melodrama of Hardy’s novel scrapes uneasily against the psychological realism of director Michael Winterbottom’s style, and the homages to Altman become almost slavish. The very watchable actors breathe what life they can into the oddly airless enterprise.
Peter Mullan, the Scots actor from My Name Is Joe, plays a gold miner who gave up everything he had in exchange for fabulous wealth in the initial gold frenzy of 1849. Now, twenty years later, he owns the isolated town of Kingdom Come, sharing his life with a hungry and pragmatic bordello madam (Milla Jovovich). His existence is upset by the arrival of a woman and daughter (Nastassja Kinski and Sarah Polley) with a story to tell, and a railroad man (Wes Bentley), whose survey of the landscape could leave Kingdom Come out in the cold.
Winterbottom seems most at home with the actors, drawing out complex work from Kinski (already experienced as a Hardy heroine, in Polanski’s Tess), Polley, and the dynamic Mullan, who spends the film in anguish over past sins. The generational difference between the pioneers and their children can be heard in their voices: the elders have rich accents, while Polley and Bentley speak in absolutely flat cadences. The big surprise is Milla Jovovich, bouncing back from the Joan of Arc debacle with a performance that is somehow both flinty and sexy; she still doesn’t handle dialogue well (the silent cinema would have loved her), although her voice blossoms when she sings at her smoky cathouse.
The texture of The Claim is Altmanesque, with lots of dim crowded interiors and frowzy community. Wes Bentley, with his dark beard, is a visual reminder of Warren Beatty’s performance in McCabe. The beauty of Alwin Kuchler’s cinematography and Michael Nyman’s music notwithstanding, the film never quite generates its own organic energy, so that an incredible moment — the movement of an entire three-story house through the snowy wilderness — is less an emotional crescendo than an interesting problem solved. Winterbottom clearly feels something for Thomas Hardy — his film Jude, from Jude the Obscure, was a harrowing adaptation — yet this film doesn’t come close to the expressiveness of Wonderland, Winterbottom’s cruise through present-day London. This director’s reach is impressive, but this time it doesn’t quite grasp.