CLAIM, THE (director/writer: Michael Winterbottom; screenwriters: Frank Cottrell Boyce, inspired by the novel “The Mayor of Casterbridge” by Thomas Hardy; cinematographer: Alwin Kuchler; editor: Trevor Waite; cast: Wes Bentley (Dalglish), Milla Jovovich (Lucia), Nastassja Kinski (Elena Dillon), Peter Mullan (Daniel Dillon), Sarah Polley (Hope Dillon), Sean McGinley (Sweetley), Julian Richings (Bellanger), Shirley Henderson (Annie); Runtime: 120; United Artists; 2000)
“The Claim works best as an antitraditional Western epic that presents an allegorical drama of fate, retribution and redemption.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
The Claim is a great western epic about the building of a frontier American town and about the pioneer who built that town. It’s an homage to Robert Altman’s insightful film, with the same theme, “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” It was creatively adapted to the screen by English director Michael Winterbottom (Jude/Welcome to Sarajevo/Wonderland) from a novel by Thomas Hardy “The Mayor of Casterbridge,” as the setting was changed from England to a snowy gold-mining mountain town in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains called Kingdom Come. The time frame was in 1867, some 20 years after the gold rush.
The lure of gold has drawn men to this remote and harsh territory, in a town without a church but one with a prosperous saloon and brothel. The town is owned by the benign despot, the mayor of the town, Mr. Dillon (Peter Mullan), who also makes the laws and enforces them with the help of his right-hand man, Mr. Sweetley (McGinley). Dillon is in his forties and has a dark secret from some 20 years ago, of how he sold his wife and young child to a prospector for his claim. It was with that claim that he struck it rich and built this material empire for himself. His mistress now is the town’s testy brothel owner, Lucia (Jovovich), a cultured whore of Portugese extraction, with a good head for business.
A caravan arrives in town, including an ailing mother and her attractive twentysomething daughter. The dying mother is named Elena (Nastassja Kinski). Her blonde daughter is named Hope (Sarah Polley). They are the wife and daughter that have haunted the prosperous businessman ever since he chose wealth over love, using the excuse that he was always drunk during those days. The mother has never told her daughter that Dillon is her father, but has instead told her that he’s a relation. They have come here to confront Mr. Dillon in a way that will not call attention to others why they are here. The dying mother, since her husband has died and left her broke, wants to make certain Dillon gives his daughter money so that she doesn’t starve.
Also on that caravan is Dalglish (Wes Bentley), a surveyor for the Central Pacific Railroad. Dalglish is important to the town because if the railroad approves of laying tracks in town that will mean certain prosperity, but if they choose to bypass the town that means death. Dalglish is the young Scottish version of Dillon. Dalglish is a handsome young man, who is very ambitious and is capable of doing his task in a hard-headed business way; he is not fooled by the red carpet treatment he’s given by Dillon as he’s offered money, free drinks, free hotel rooms, and whores. Dalglish gladly accepts the women and the booze, but has trouble with being openly bribed by money. What he knows for certain, is that he’s attracted to the peachy looking Hope. Lucia also finds him attractive and when disappointed by Dillon’s attention going to the two newly arrived women, she comes onto Dalglish. He prefers Hope, but when there are obstacles between them he’s quite willing to be with Lucia. It all indicates that even though he’s honestly doing his job, he seems to be someone who has chinks in his armor and might in the future be corrupted.
The Claim works best as an anti-traditional Western epic that presents an allegorical drama of fate, retribution and redemption. It took a certain courage for Dillon, the flawed hero of the story, to come out to this barren land and make something out of it. The next generation to come out here was represented by the brashness of young Dalglish, who will have it easier than the pioneers. He will have more to work with, but the baton has been passed on and he will also have to face his dark side and see if he can overcome his mistakes and build something that is worthwhile and lasting. The film might not have been engaging dramatically at all times, as it parceled out its long tale reluctantly in bits and pieces, but it sets a haunting mood relating the lives of these laconic characters to the building of the country. It shows how the country consisted of people from all over the world who had dreams of success. In The Claim these pioneers are emigrants of Scottish, Polish, Irish, and Portuguese stock. These are the builders of America who found sanctuary in the snow-covered mountain town and brought civilization to the country, even though they did it in such a violent and messy way. The Claim also does not forget the English influence on these settlers, this is shown by a poem being read from Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”
The film is satisfying because it remains elusive as to what the ingredient for success and happiness is, as each character wants something else in their American Dream. This is a country where individual freedom is cherished, and this film does that concept a great honor by not trivializing that dream to be the same for everyone. It shows how a successful town could live with a diverse population, a whorehouse, a church, and gold-mining camps.
There are a number of striking visual scenes; such as, the train passing through the breathtaking mountain landscape, which indicates what a difficult chore it must have been to lay tracks in that location. There’s a surreal eye-catching shot of a horse on fire galloping on the mountain snow. Another great shot was the moving of Dillon’s Victorian house, a tribute to the workforce in the community who rallied together to support one another in a time of need.
The Scottish actor Peter Mullen gave a wonderfully restrained performance, convincing as the man who did wrong and doesn’t know how to make things right except by trying to when given a second chance. Sarah Polley is a marvelous young Canadian actress, whose stubborn girlish behavior comes to a climax when she falls in love and begins to understand her mother in a way she couldn’t before; circumstances have changed so rapidly when she learns about her mother’s secret and she is on her own out of necessity.
As in “McCabe…,” there’s a gloomy ending that reflects on how disastrous and empty a life of greed is. It’s a bleak film that manages to give one hope for a situation that seems hopeless, and that is the strength of this very enriching film. It has captured a slice of the American West from a book that was written as an English period piece.
REVIEWED ON 6/17/2001 GRADE: A-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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