The Claim

2000, Movie, R, 120 mins


After a series of interesting near-misses, the alarmingly prolific British director Michael Winterbottom returned to a tried and true source: Thomas Hardy. But rather than a straightforward adaptation in the manner of JUDE, he attempts to transform The Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy's novel about life in provincial Wessex, into a parable of America's westward expansion and the men who built short-lived empires in the wilderness. Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce prune the plot and shift whatever action is left to 19th-century California, where Daniel Dillon (Peter Mullan), the self-anointed king of the portentously named town of Kingdom Come, is brought face to face with his shameful past. Some eighteen years earlier, a drunk and desperate Dillon sold his wife and infant daughter to a prospector in return for a land claim in the snowy Sierra Nevada Mountains — a claim that would bring him to a fortune in gold. Confronted by his newly returned wife, Elena (Nastassja Kinski), and grown daughter, Hope (Sarah Polley), Dillon tries to right this grievous wrong. He first breaks off his relationship with Lucia (Milla Jovovich), the Portuguese proprietress of Kingdom Come's bordello and casino, then remarries Elena. In Hardy's novel, Dillon is soon undone by his own arrogance, but in 1867 California there was an even more powerful force at work turning proud men's dreams to dust: the Central Pacific Railroad. With gold prospecting on the wane, Dillon's fate and the future of Kingdom Come depend entirely on whether or not the railroad barons decide to lay track in their direction; in town to make that decision is Dalglish (Wes Bently), a young surveyor who catches Hope's eye. With an obvious visual debt to Robert Altman's MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER, this strikingly beautiful anti-western is filled with arresting images: a horse engulfed in flames, charging into the snowy wilderness; a grand house hauled through the thick forest like Fitzcarraldo's steamship. This may be a more level-headed allegory of the American West than, say, Antonia Bird's delirious RAVENOUS, which equated the settlement of northern California with literal bloodlust and cannibalism. But it isn't nearly as compelling; Winterbottom's scenario lacks the moral significance of Hardy's novel, and considering how Dillon's actions have little to do with his fate, it all seems somewhat irrelevant anyway. Winterbottom proves that you can take Hardy out of his country... but why on Earth would you want to? leave a comment --Ken Fox

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