Versatile English director Michael Winterbottom (Wonderland, Welcome to Sarajevo, Jude) has now tried his hand at an American western. Heís transplanted Thomas Hardyís The Mayor of Casterbridge to 1867 and the snowy mountains of the Californian High Sierras.There are two plots in The Claim that run parallel before finally joining. Dillon (Peter Mullan) presides over the small town of Kingdom Come through a combination of wealth and tenacity, and by maintaining a firm grip on his authority. He has a mistress, Lucia (Milla Jovovich), who looks after the town saloon and brothel. Dillon is not married to anyone in Kingdom Come. We soon learn - via flashback - that he has never forgiven himself for long ago selling his wife and baby to a lonely prospector in return for the gold claim that made him rich.
Now, his abandoned wife (Nastassja Kinski) and grown daughter (Sarah Polley) have returned. They arrive with Dalglish (Wes Bentley), a young engineer from the Central Pacific Railroad. Dalglish and his team are surveying the area to decide the course of the railway line. If the tracks pass through, or near to, Kingdom Come they will attract much-needed commerce; a more distant route spells stagnation for the frontier town.
Unfortunately, once we know the charactersí histories, there isnít much in the way of other revelations in Frank Cottrell Boyceís screenplay. The characters donít function beyond their role in the plot; they arenít flesh and blood creations. Dillonís is the most interesting role - the man who sacrificed his family for the sake of money and ambition - and Mullan adds what layers he can. Jovovich has the advantage of the liveliest, least tortured character, and she plays it with gusto. Winterbottomís decision to employ a multiracial cast for the background characters adds authenticity.
Iím no western aficionado, but my companion reliably informed me that The Claim includes references to John Fordís My Darling Clementine and Nicholas Rayís Johnny Guitar, among likely others. Set amidst a harsh snow scape, it looks nothing like your average dusty western. Unfortunately, Winterbottom and cinematographer Alwin Kuchler keep blurring figures in the landscape out of focus, and itís distracting. But there are a couple of marvellously staged set pieces: one involves the transportation of a building, the other is the fiery climax.I admired The Claim like a beautiful painting, but the fate of these characters was too pre-ordained to justify caring about. Michael Nyman contributes an elegiac score.