Inspired by Thomas Hardy’s fable “The Mayor of Casterbridge,” “The Claim” boasts the physical scale and formal beauty of an epic Western, but it suffers from a slim and fractured narrative, unengaging mode of storytelling and yet another irritating performance from Milla Jovovich. Set in 1867, after the Gold Rush, amid the Sierra Nevada Mountains, this tale of love, greed, revenge and redemption aims to provide poignant commentary on the making of California as a unique element in American history and mythology. Unfortunately, helmer Michael Winterbottom’s second foray into Hardy country is as severely flawed and as commercially problematic as his first, “Jude.” MGM faces an uphill battle in positioning a muddled period piece among the top guns of a particularly crowded theatrical season.
Hopping from genre to genre, Winterbottom is an ambitious British filmmaker who has established a reputation for tackling difficult material in an innovative way. But on the evidence of his half-dozen pictures, he’s clearly more adept at telling modern stories, such as “Welcome to Sarajevo” and “Wonderland,” than historical sagas on the order of “Jude” or “The Claim.”
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Adapting Hardy to the bigscreen has always presented a difficult challenge for filmmakers, with John Schlesinger’s “Far From the Madding Crowd” (1967) and Roman Polanski’s “Tess” (1980) probably faring best.
New pic’s protagonist is Dillon (Peter Mullan), a rugged Irish pioneer who tackled the harsh landscape in search of gold. At story’s outset, he’s a tough patriarch who, having amassed great wealth, runs a mining town, Kingdom Come, where he owns every institution: the bank, the mines, the hotel, even the liquor store.
In the early scenes, Dillon is seen with Lucia (Jovovich), an exotic Portuguese chanteuse and brothel owner with whom he’s having an affair. Things change dramatically when three outsiders arrive in town. Dalglish (“American Beauty’s” Wes Bentley) is a young, handsome surveyor with ambitions of expanding the Central Pacific Railroad, which threatens Dillon’s rule as well as the future of his town.
The two other strangers are Elena (Nastassja Kinski), a sickly though still beautiful Polish immigrant, and her daughter, Hope (Sarah Polley). Their presence also threatens the town’s stability and Dillon’s welfare, though in a very different way. Brief flashbacks interspersed in the narrative suggest their link to Dillon’s past, a connection that continues to haunt him despite efforts at reconciliation. Tale is structured around a family secret and how it affects the new, tangled relationships among a quintet of characters whose affairs of the heart often clash with their business interests.
Those familiar with Hardy’s sprawling 1886 novel will be vastly disappointed with Winterbottom’s rendition. Hardy employed a naturalistic method to depict the rustic life, with colorful speech and vivid characters among the bumpkins of Casterbridge; these details are missing from the screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce (a frequent Winterbottom collaborator who also wrote “Hilary and Jackie”). As with “Jude,” the dialogue is anachronistic, marred by language that’s neither authentic for its historic setting nor modern in a manner that will speak to contempo viewers.
Worse, all the main characters are simplistically drawn, each with one dominant attribute, particularly the women. Lucia is lusty and aggressive; Elena, mostly seen in bed, is associated with agony and pain; Hope is a naive innocent representing a better future. The only fully rounded character is Dillon, and Mullan’s multishaded performance accounts for the few interesting scenes in the film.
There’s a huge gap between the texture of the outdoor scenes, which are all about stark beauty, and the indoor ones, which aim for intense lyricism. On a superficial level, “The Claim” recalls Robert Altman’s richly moody “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” also set in winter, though in the turn-of-the-century Northwest. Like that 1971 Western, which depicted a doomed romance between a gambler and a drug-addicted madam, “The Claim” explores the collision of dreams and reality, the inevitability of change propelled by new technology and new mores.
Though not as distinguished as Vilmos Zsigmond’s lensing for Altman’s dreamy epic, Alwin Kuchler’s cinematography provides moments of visual pleasure, with spectacular long shots of the land, the building of the railroads, and the dragging of fully constructed wood houses uphill by horse. In all fairness, the film deserves credit for trying to portray a different kind of West from what’s been the norm in Hollywood’s sagas: a multiracial, dynamically in-flux, gritty landscape — and truly America’s last frontier.