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Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2002

Once upon a time in the West

The Claim

Rating: * * * *
Japanese title: Meguri Au Daichi
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Running time: 121 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

Thomas Hardy's novels have seen far fewer cinematic adaptations than many of his literary contemporaries' works, and there's a reason for that: The bleak fates awaiting his protagonists rule out that all-important staple of the movies, the Happy Ending.

News photo
Milla Jovovich and Wes Bentley in "The Claim"

Roman Polanski scored a minor hit with "Tess" in 1979, due in no large part to the indelible beauty of a young Nastassja Kinski (and the scandal regarding underage sex that surrounded the director at the time). Nobody ventured near Hardy again until 1996, when British director Michael Winterbottom produced a faithfully cruel version of Hardy's "Jude the Obscure." Well-acted and well-made, it was such a cold film that even Kate Winslet couldn't bring a blush to it.

Winterbottom has only improved since then, working at an impressive rate and turning out films that vary in style and scale, from a gritty tale of combat journalism ("Welcome to Sarajevo") to a sultry femme fatale film noir ("I Want You"). Thus, it's with some trepidation that one approaches "The Claim," Winterbottom's latest, which turns out to be another Hardy adaptation, this time of "The Mayor of Casterbridge."

But Winterbottom rolls the dice here by re-imagining Hardy's tale in the snow-encrusted Sierra Nevada during the tail-end of the California gold rush in 1867, and he comes up big. "The Claim" may well be his finest work to date.

It helps that this time not all the characters are doomed to a dismal fate -- only two or three. (This is Hardy, after all.) Some rays of hope are scattered amid the human wreckage, which makes for a more balanced slice of life than the raging pessimism of "Jude." But what really makes this work is the intriguingly eclectic cast, whose performances are both deeply felt and natural, something that's not always true of period pieces. Milla Jovovich has never displayed anything near the sensitivity she does here as a bordello owner with a clear eye on a better future. She's ably supported by Sarah Polley ("The Sweet Hereafter"), Wes Bentley ("American Beauty"), Peter Mullan ("Trainspotting") and -- 20 years after "Tess" -- an older, wiser Kinski.

Regular Winterbottom screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce sets the action in the small, snowy town of Kingdom Come, perched high in the Sierra Nevada mountains. A hot spot for miners who come looking for some warm and willing company in the bordello/saloon run by Lucia (Jovovich), Kingdom Come is a fiefdom largely created and run by one man, a tough-as-nails miner who struck it rich called Dillon (Mullan).

Dillon's total domination of the town -- through wealth and menace, as well as a romantic relationship with Lucia -- is disrupted by the arrival of newcomers. The silent, sickly Elena (Kinski) comes to stay at the town's hotel with her daughter, Hope (Polley), which brings to Dillon an uncomfortable reminder of his past, and the secrets it contains. It's Mr. Dalglish (Bentley), however, who holds the key to the town's future. A young engineer for a railroad company planning to lay a line from the coast through the mountains, Dalglish will determine Dillon's fate by either choosing to include the town on the route, or to bypass it.

Dillon knows this, and immediately tries to ply Dalglish with women and drink at Lucia's saloon. Dalglish is an idealistic type, though, focused on his work, and with an eye for more upstanding women like Hope. This further infuriates Dillon, as he has his own connection with Hope and her mother, and is loathe to see his potential rival Dalglish in the middle. These five people share convoluted ties of love, honor, shame and self-interest, but they all finally snap under the weight of Dillon's massive hubris.

As a tragedy, "The Claim" is flawless. Mullan gives a fiery performance as a hardened, embittered man who tasted poverty and threw away his ideals in the blind pursuit of material gain. His belated stab at redemption makes him sympathetic, a classic Judas figure whose actions are too little, too late.

Jovovich is just as good. Her approach up until now has been to overcompensate for her slight frame by over-acting and bouncing off the walls in films like "Biohazard" and "Joan of Arc." Here, her fragile looks and cascading locks belie a fierce pragmatism and resiliency that she captures with her dignified gaze and posture, calmly in control.

Winterbottom's greatest skill is always his choice of locations and capturing the feel of a place so well, whether it's the shrapnel-strewn streets of Sarajevo re-created on carefully constructed sets, or the hand-held pedestrian's eye-view of London, shot on DV, for "Wonderland."

"The Claim" marks his most panoramic vision; an entire town was constructed in the Rocky Mountains west of Calgary, and peopled with hundreds of extras. And there's something about actually shooting with your cast in minus 30 degree temperatures that you just don't get with computer graphics: The oppressive cold of the wilderness and the inviting candlelit warmth of the saloon become so much more tangible.

"The Claim" is a western, but unlike any you've seen before. Guns are checked at the city gates at Kingdom Come (though they do emerge later), cattle are noticeably absent, and Lucia's saloon, especially, moves beyond the stereotype. This elaborately decorated cocoon -- mixing European, Russion and Chinese motifs for an exotic feel -- is the home of both high and low culture, where French whores bump up against chanteuses, and operettas can be enjoyed one room over from roulette.

The scenery is striking -- sheer pine-strewn slopes, and 3-meter icicles -- as is so much of the film's imagery: a massive, multitiered pagoda dragged up into the town, a burning horse wildly fleeing a dynamite accident, an entire hilltop immersed in apocalyptic flame. There are quieter moments, too: The look on Kinski's face as she agrees to marry Dillon is a story in itself, so full of resignation and strength, forgiveness and hurt.

There are two levels to great filmmaking: the macro and the micro, and that's something that a director like David Lean understood, while George Lucas doesn't get it and never will. Winterbottom is definitely aligned with the former: He knows the way an actor reacts to a line can be as deep and entrancing as the most amazing wide-screen spectacle. Respect him for being an indie director who's dared to dream big.

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