Neil Young’s Film Lounge – The Claim

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE CLAIM

7/10

UK/Canada 2000
dir Michael Winterbottom
scr Frank Cottrell Boyce (inspired by novel The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy)
cin Alwin Kuchler
stars Wes Bentley, Peter Mullan, Sarah Polley, Milla Jovovich
120 minutes

Wintry Klondike western The Claim has all the makings of a colossal downer. Winterbottoms last Hardy adaptation was Jude (from Jude the Obscure), and Casterbridges grim template threatens similarly dour results. The trailer hints that, like the snow, tragedy will swirl and engulf all, driven by Michael Nymans relentless score. These advance impressions perhaps explainthe films meagre box-office returns – then there’s that title to contend with, or rather non-title, all too easily confused with that of another current release, The Gift. Why on earth did they discard the original choice, Kingdom Come a more resonant phrase, and a more accurate description the movies content?

For this is, at heart, the biography of a settlement Kingdom Come, in the snowy reaches of 19th century Northern California from birth to sudden demise, as much as the story of its inhabitants and visitors. Dillon (Mullan) is the boss of Kingdom Come, having built it up from a single shack 30 years before. He purchased the claim on the land (and any gold found there) from its original settler, in exchange for his wife Elena and infant daughter Hope. Decades later they return, Elena (Kinski) ailing and penniless, Hope (Polley) unaware of the past events.

Dillons problems are complicated by railroad engineer Dalgleish (Bentley), who arrives to survey the land with a view to laying tracks near Kingdom Come, thus ensuring its growth from hamlet into small town. Dalglish strikes up a relationship with Hope; Dillon, tormented by guilt, breaks with prostitute Lucia (Jovovich), and marries Elena again; Dalglish must decide Kingdom Comes future and thus Dillons, Hopes, and his own

At this point The Claim could easily have headed down dark avenues of morbid melodrama but, refreshingly, things don’t pan out as expected. Lucia reveals herself to be a fiery, independent spirit, but without the malice a lesser film might have allocated such a woman spurned. She and Dalglish start an affair meaning that, while Dalglishs relationship with Hope is the emotional core of the movie, it isn’t any kind of spectacular grand passion, more a believable function of their circumstances. Such developments have seen The Claim criticised as undercooked and aimless but the films strength lies in its refusal to follow the well-trodden path of previous tragic westerns. Boyces script avoids easy ironies towards the end of the film, when another new settlement is founded, it must have been tempting to give it the name of one of todays big cities but the temptation was resisted.

Its also helpful that the five principal roles are all intriguingly rounded, and strikingly well-cast and acted, although Kinskis performance rapidly narrows into scenes where she’s lying in bed, coughing and dying. Bentley confirms the startling promise of American Beauty was no fluke with his huge eyes, pale skin and thick black hair and beard, he becomes an element in cinematographer Kuchlers near-monochrome recreations of contemporary landscape photographs. As written, Dalglish requires a steely, confident type of youthfulness, and its there in Bentleys every action and look, there in the icy tones of his voice. His crisp diction allows him to get away with mouthing the movies homiletic last line, making a windy moral sound fresh and wise.

The script isn’t entirely free of such clunkers there’s a heavy-handedness about the way we catch the lines I am Ozymandias, King of Kings: look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair during a bar-room recital. Another recital later on highlights a different problem Hope and her mother, were told, are from Boston. But when Polley, in a pivotal scene, recites an Irish poem, there’s no effort to give her any trace of the distinctive Massachusetts accent. Why bother mentioning Boston at all? Much fuss is made of Lucia being from Portugal but youd never guess it from the way she speaks.

Winterbottom is a prolific film-maker he seems to churn one out ever year, most recently Wonderland and this perhaps explains his occasional sloppiness. Theres no reason, for example, to switch to hand-held for a few seconds when the camera follows some people up a flight of stairs. If he’s strong with actors, giving them room to develop rounded characters, he’s undeniably weak in other areas – he’s never been much of a visual stylist, and too often he either quotes too blatantly from McCabe and Mrs Miller and Days of Heaven, or else falls into the traps of clich that the script so nimbly avoids Jovovich smoking in front of a mirror; shadowy slow-motion in the flashbacks to Dillon selling his family

But its easy to overlook Winterbottoms rather uninspired eye when he’s got such powerful tools as Bentley, the Rockies, and Nymans score to play with. Though Individual details and moments may snag, the broad sweep is persuasive The Claim convincingly, intelligently dramatises how individuals shape and are shaped by their circumstances, how towns and nations are formed and destroyed – and how all these forces combine to produce our history, and our present.

March 2nd, 2001

by Neil Young