Michael Winterbottom, a talented filmmaker who previously directed Jude, crafted his second film based on a Thomas Hardy novel – turning to The Mayor of Casterbridge, changing the setting to 1869 Alaska, and chiseling through the icy vistas to present The Claim. If you’re looking for action and fun, go elsewhere, but anyone even vaguely familiar with Hardy should already know that. Do you remember seeing Tess, or did you sleep through it?
For anyone attracted to see The Claim because of Wes Bentley, proceed with caution because he doesn't have a lot to do in the film despite being one of the leading characters. Mostly the now bearded Bentley walks around passively gazing at the scenery, looking very much like American Beauty's Ricky without any depth or convictions.
Bentley plays Donald Dalglish, an engineer hired by the Central Pacific Railroad to lay new tracks. When Dalglish's crew land in the frozen little town of Kingdom Come, the self-appointed mayor greets them uneasily. This is Daniel Dillon (Peter Mullan), the original pioneer who came with the great gold rush of 1849 and carved out a living for himself. Dillon is well aware of the coming transition, and the importance of the railroad to Alaska's future─towns close to the railroad will thrive.
There isn't much to do in the community, so everyone meets at the central watering hole and bordello, where every man gets a woman at a price. It takes a while to tell through Wes Bentley's acting, but Dalglish does like the madam of the house, Lucia (Milla Jovovich). Complicating matters is the fact that she is Dillon's favorite as well.
That is until Elena (Nastassja Kinski from Tess) arrives with her daughter Hope (Sarah Polley from The Sweet Hereafter). For a soon to be explained reason, Dillon instantly becomes obsessed with Elena and marries her without much courtship. The bed-ridden Elena spends most of the movie coughing up blood, so her fate isn't too difficult to figure out. Meanwhile, Dillon's dark past now dominates his life and his attention turns more towards his wife and feeble attempts to establish a fatherly relationship with Hope, who has now become enamored with Dalglish.
So as far as dramatic conflicts, we basically have questions of which love interest will Dalglish take up with, where will the railroad set its tracks, and what will become of Dillon and the town as a result?
The film contains some beautiful winter scenery shot on location in Alberta, Canada and a wonder how the filmmakers were able to shoot a mesmerizing scene of a running horse that is literally ablaze. While the cinematography highlights the best qualities of the film, the editing is another story. One of the major problems I have with the film rests with the confusing way the scenes are edited and put together. They show many clips of activities going on around the town (lots of whorehouse scenes), but there is so little plot or character being developed that I was left wondering why many scenes are included. Winterbottom includes so many superfluous scenes that it's difficult to sort through the menagerie to find the meaningful ones.
When it gets down to it, The Claim is a very simple story—a potential character study of Dillon and his pioneering spirit and the inevitable challenge of transitioning to the modern world. Unfortunately, the director never really lets us inside these characters, so the movie going experience becomes like taking an art museum highlight tour without delving deeply into any of the paintings. Instead of entering any of the characters’ psyches, we are held at a distance and expected to see these characters as mere archetypes and symbols.
So, watching The Claim becomes like attending a collegiate literature class in Thomas Hardy. And don’t expect any humor; this is deadly serious material. A few people will get off on that, but most of the public will find it a snore. For a more enjoyable film that explores similar themes, watch McCabe & Mrs. Miller instead. Altman’s film works much better.