Friday, December 12, 2014

Neglected Gem #66: Michael Winterbottom's The Claim (2001)

Michael Winterbottom's The Claim (2001) is set shortly after the 1849 California Gold Rush and loosely based on Thomas Hardy's emotionally devastating 1886 novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge. But Winterbottom doesn't simply adapt Hardy's powerfully evocative moral drama and recast it in the emerging American West, he cures the film in the poetically elliptical style of Robert Altman's imagined frontier of McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971). Altman's film, which starred Warren Beatty as a gambler with a vision and Julie Christie as the pragmatic madam he loved, was a dreamy, effusive view of the ruggedness of settling the land. The Claim doesn't share the fulsome lyricism of McCabe, but like Altman's western, Winterbottom allows the story to unfold through an evocatively shifting tableau of conflicting moods.

Thomas Hardy's novel was a morally complex character study about Michael Henchard, a young hay-trusser, who sells his wife to a sailor one night in a drunken daze. When he sobers up, he's determined to give up drinking. He even becomes a successful and wealthy man as well as the respected mayor of the town of Casterbridge. Eighteen years later, though, his wife returns to him with her daughter, in order to reveal the truth of his earlier actions to the town he rules. This revelation drives Henchard back to drink and ruin. The Mayor of Casterbridge is about the cumulative power of past sins that can unravel the illusions we sometimes take refuge in. The Claim carries the emotional freight of Hardy while extending the theme of shattered personal illusions to larger ones – the town he creates in his own image aptly titled: Kingdom Come. Daniel Dillon (Peter Mullan), an Irish-American immigrant who runs Kingdom Come in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, is wealthy, respected and (like Henchard) has an unsavoury past. Years earlier he sold his wife and his own daughter to a gold prospector to acquire the deed to a claim that would lead to his riches and fame. But his ailing wife Elena (Nastassja Kinski) and his daughter, Hope (Sarah Polley), much later venture to Kingdom Come to make him repent. Dillon makes a noble attempt to redeem himself, but he's also compromised by the presence of Dalgish (Wes Bentley), an expedient railroad surveyor who poses a threat to Dillon's power and wealth. Dalgish also threatens Dillon's romantic entanglement with Lucia (Milla Jovovich), the saloon singer who loves him and is doomed to lose him to the woman from his past.

The emotional power in The Claim grows out of a fever dream brought on by desperate greed – just as Von Stroheim's Greed (1924) and John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierre Madre (1948) did  – while Alwin Kuchler's elegiac cinematography invokes the faded photos of an emerging civilization. Winterbottom, along with screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (his collaborator on the 1997 Welcome to Sarajevo), create a pensive dramatic fable where tragedy and regret delicately commingle. Peter Mullan, whose heavy spiritedness can usually sink a movie, delivers a powerhouse performance here. Mullan often plays characters who are all body armour, but this time we get beneath the cracks in the shield. Nastassja Kinski, who once played Hardy's Tess in Roman Polanski's film, has developed much more emotional range here since she no longer uses her beauty as an opaque mask. Kinski plays Dillon's abandoned wife with a quiet dignity that doesn't call attention to itself. Milla Jovovich also does some of her best work as the sultry and bereft singer, while Sarah Polley creates a quiet presence with deep emotional reserves as Hope. Only Wes Bentley's Dalgish carries the same vacuous blandness he displayed in American Beauty (1999) as the videographer/dope dealer.

A few years earlier, Michael Winterbottom made a bold attempt to tackle Hardy's Jude the Obscure, which is about (among many things) cruelly dashed idealism. But the film couldn't successfully invoke the psychological dynamics of the story. It was as if Winterbottom was chained to Hardy's densely told tale and wasn't free to find his own voice to interpret its drama. Jude instead turned into a banal exercise in social commentary. But by shifting the story of The Mayor of Casterbridge to a new location under different circumstances and times, it seems to have freed Winterbottom to find his own way. The Claim is worth its weight in gold.

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.          

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