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The Claim

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: The Claim

Starring: Peter Mullan, Sarah Polley
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Rated: R
RunTime: 123 Minutes
Release Date: October 2000
Genres: Romance, Western


*Also starring: Wes Bentley, Milla Jovovich, Nastassja Kinski, Julian Richings, Shirley Henderson, Sean McGinley



Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Some movies consider second chances--Brett Ratner's "The Family Man," for example--about what sort of life we might have had if only.... Other movies in a similar vein are more realistic. We can't change what happened years ago, but Michael Winterbottom's "The Claim" instructs us about what one man does when given the chance to make up for a moral failure in the past. "The Claim" is not about a guy who goes to summer school to make up for his 55 in Computer Science. In fact the film takes place principally in 1869, before computers or electric light bulbs were invented and about the time that cameras began taking snapshots and views of town life. In fact thanks largely to the invention of photography, Winterbottom's crew, particularly production designer Mark Tildesley, were able to reconstruct a California town just as it looked 130 years ago--not the easiest job considering that the hamlet was erected in minus thirty degrees temperature with winds sometimes gusting to one hundred miles per hour.

Winterbottom's camera man, Alwin Kuchler, captures the majesty of Fortress Mountain high in the Canadian Rockies to simulate the wild west town of Kingdom Come, California-- some twenty years after the discovery of gold led to the migration of a half million people of pioneer spirit in search of wealth and a greater degree of independence than the East could afford. Winterbottom's picture, then, is a western complete with a town bar (although the manager here is not named Kitty), with just a fraction of the gunplay of the traditional genre movie popular during the forties and fifties, and with some moments of peak drama of the sort exploited by Fred Zinnemann's "High Noon."

Inspired by Thomas Hardy's "The Mayor of Casterbridge" this tale of greed, guilt, and redemption scripted by Frank Cottrell Boyce centers on a man who is more than the chief political honcho of the town of Kingdom Come, Daniel Dillon (Peter Mullan). Dillon runs the town because he owns everything in it--the bar, the brothel, the bank, the respect of all who know him and never call him anything but Mr. Dillon. In a few brief flashbacks that take us back twenty years, we find out that he acquired his wealth when, trudging in knee- deep snow out in nowhere with his wife and newborn baby, he agrees to a Faustian bargain. In return for a bag of gold from a man who insists that he needs a woman more than the money, he sells his wife Elena (Natassja Kinski) and his newborn, Hope (Sarah Polley). During the years of living the high life, Daniel enjoys the carnal companionship of barkeep and brothel manager Lucia (Milla Jovovich) and appears to lack only a railroad to pass through the town--without which the village could not long prosper. As Donald Dalglish (Wes Bentley) scouts areas to find the ideal locations for the tracks that his company is prepared to construct, he is courted by Dillon (who tries unsuccessfully to bribe the young man) and in turn by the lovely twenty-year-old Hope--who has traveled to the burg with her mother unaware that Dillon is her sell-out dad.

Winterbottom presumably shows us what California was like without the glitter and gloss that slickly commercial westerns have afforded. We see that the men rarely change their clothes and are the sorts that we today would probably move far away from if traveling with them on the very tracks that were built over a century ago by thousands of immigrants making just pennies a day. The views of the Rockies are stunning; covered with snow, streams running through, still virgin land beginning to smart at the rapaciousness of the builders and miners.

What the movie lacks, however, is sufficient character and plot development. Moviegoers could be confused by the flashbacks were they not aware of the ill deed done twenty years earlier by the principal character, whose feeling of guilt comes dramatically to the surface when confronted by his wife and daughter. The romance between Hope Dillon and railroad scout Donald Dalglish is odd. Though love at first sight does indeed exist, only Sarah Polley's in the role of the innocent but curious twenty-year-old comes across convincingly. Nastassja Kinski, remarkable in Roman Polanski's "Tess" (also based on a novel by Thomas Hardy), gets little to do but flash her ghostly, consumption-ridden pallor across the screen. Peter Mullan's rendition of a virtual Nineteenth Century baron--whose fate is foreshadowed when one of the locals performing in the bar delivers a rendition of Percy Byshe Shelley's poem "Ozymandias" written in 1817-- overshadows the rest of the cast whether loudly shutting up the chatty denizens of the bar during a recital by his daughter or simply looking morose when ultimately considering the meaninglessness of his wealth. The Glaswegian perfomer is well suited to a cast representing the large body of European immigrants (in this case from Ireland) who had left their famine-stricken lands in search of gold and glory.

While all that glitters is not gold in Winterbottom's film of American pioneers, many of whom left the claustrophobic confines of effete cities while others fled from the insularity of their European homelands--"The Claim" is a reasonably good meshing of a personal story with a chapter of America at a time that rugged individualism, and not paper shuffling in office cubicles, was the order of the day.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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