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"THE CLAIM"
(2000) (Wes Bentley, Sara Polley) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: The lives of a 19th century man and the residents of the small frontier town he runs are forever changed upon the arrival of three visitors.
PLOT:
It's winter 1867 in the small town of Kingdom Come in the Sierra Nevadas. Run by Daniel Dillon (PETER MULLAN), who years earlier traded his wife and young child for gold and a claim to the property that he then built up into what it is today, the remote frontier town isn't much more than a stopping point for those looking for alcohol or the company of prostitutes, both of which are managed by Dillon's lover, Lucia (MILLA JOVOVICH).

The latest visitors to the town are Dalglish (WES BENTLEY) and his survey team from the Central Pacific Railway, which includes his partner, Bellanger (JULIAN RICHINGS) who's sweet on one of the hookers, Annie (SHIRLEY HENDERSON). The team is looking for a route through the area to run their tracks and Dillon is keen on making sure his town is along one of its stops.

Then there's Elena (NASTASSJA KINSKI) and Hope Burn (SARAH POLLEY), a mother and daughter who've traveled to Kingdom Come to meet Dillon. It seems that Elena is terminally ill and hopes that Dillon, a man from her past, might be able to care for Hope financially.

As Dillon's past and future collide in the snowy winter, the arrival of the three visitors and revelations related to them then set into motion a series of events that will forever change Kingdom Come and the man who runs it

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
While all sorts of people, events and technological innovations have shaped and forever changed America, few did it with as much speed and scope as the California gold rush and the expansion and eventual connection of railroad lines across the country in the mid 19th century. Both moved vast amounts of people into a mostly undeveloped region and forever changed the population makeup of the country.

Various pictures have covered or at least been set in the midst of either of those events, and the Old West and its cowboys, gunslingers, forty-niners and such have become common folklore of the cinema. Even so, few films have really done much in the way of showing the negative aftermath of such expansion, greed and "progress."

That's what gives "The Claim," a well acted if slow to gel drama, its inherent hook and novelty. Set several decades after the gold rush and in the middle of the efforts to connect railways from both sides of the country, the film - loosely based on and adapted from Thomas Hardy's novel, "The Mayor Of Casterbridge" by screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (making his feature film writing debut) - has the feel of an epic novel that's been condensed into a two hour movie.

Naturally, that has both positive and negative implications. On the plus side, the film has an engaging underlying story, interesting and flawed characters, and a palatable historic aura. Filmed on location in Alberta, Canada and Colorado, the picture captures the look and feel of the times -- thanks in part to the wonderful natural vistas and the work of cinematographer Alwin Kuchler ("One Day in September," "Ratcatcher") - and director Michael Winterbottom ("Wonderland," "Jude") perfectly creates a foreboding sense of isolation for which the script calls.

The performances are generally solid and everyone has the appropriate look for the period. Peter Mullan ("Miss Julie," "My Name is Joe") imbues his character with the necessary tragic flaws to make it work for the story, while Sarah Polley ("Go," "Guinevere") is good as the young woman repeatedly affected by his actions.

Nastassja Kinski ("Playing By Heart," "Father's Day") is credible as a terminally ill and progressively ailing woman, Milla Jovovich ("The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc," "The Fifth Element") is appropriately titillating as the local tavern and brothel owner, and Wes Bentley ("American Beauty," "Beloved") creates a strong and magnetic presence on the screen as the ambitious railroad man.

Yet, something seems to be missing from most of their characters, a fact that most likely will leave many viewers hungry for more explanations, fleshing out and development regarding them that unfortunately never comes. That's one of the film's weaker points and it shortchanges the efforts that the cast and crew put forth.

When combined with the film's occasionally episodic approach at telling its story - various jumps in time, which are often substantial, aren't always smooth or easy to perceive from scene to scene - the overall effect is that of a story that needs more time than this film's running length of just over two hours allows. It's certainly not an entirely debilitating flaw as the story manages to grow stronger and emotes more resonance as it unfolds, but it clearly prevents the film being as good as it could have been.

Others may also be disappointed that the film never really delves more than superficially into any details about the railroad experience and building of it during that time. While that's possibly another victim of being shortchanged in time, it could also be that the filmmakers were more interested in using the railway encroachment as a symbol of change rather than examining or portraying the matter in and upon itself.

Some may also believe that the filmmakers' let the cat out of its proverbial bag too soon. In this case, that's related to some important plot developments that are both relatively easy to figure out and revealed probably a bit before they should have been. Of course, the filmmakers do so in order to set up their tragedy of sorts, and for the most part, they're effective in doing just that.

It's just too bad that the feeling many viewers will be left with is that both the film and its characters were only experienced in the cinematic equivalent of skimming the surface. I found myself continually wanting to know more about the characters, their backgrounds and feelings about themselves and toward one another, but that rarely occurs on anything remotely approaching a deep, satisfying level.

Otherwise solidly told but ultimately rather mundane to watch, "The Claim" looks great and has an interesting story to tell, but feels too shortchanged to be as good as it might have been. As a result, the film rates as just a 5.5 out of 10.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
While all sorts of people, events and technological innovations have shaped and forever changed America, few did it with as much speed and scope as the California gold rush and the expansion and eventual connection of railroad lines across the country in the mid 19th century. Both moved vast amounts of people into a mostly undeveloped region and forever changed the population makeup of the country.

Various pictures have covered or at least been set in the midst of either of those events, and the Old West and its cowboys, gunslingers, forty-niners and such have become common folklore of the cinema. Even so, few films have really done much in the way of showing the negative aftermath of such expansion, greed and "progress."

That's what gives "The Claim," a well acted if slow to gel drama, its inherent hook and novelty. Set several decades after the gold rush and in the middle of the efforts to connect railways from both sides of the country, the film - loosely based on and adapted from Thomas Hardy's novel, "The Mayor Of Casterbridge" by screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (making his feature film writing debut) - has the feel of an epic novel that's been condensed into a two hour movie.

Naturally, that has both positive and negative implications. On the plus side, the film has an engaging underlying story, interesting and flawed characters, and a palatable historic aura. Filmed on location in Alberta, Canada and Colorado, the picture captures the look and feel of the times -- thanks in part to the wonderful natural vistas and the work of cinematographer Alwin Kuchler ("One Day in September," "Ratcatcher") - and director Michael Winterbottom ("Wonderland," "Jude") perfectly creates a foreboding sense of isolation for which the script calls.

The performances are generally solid and everyone has the appropriate look for the period. Peter Mullan ("Miss Julie," "My Name is Joe") imbues his character with the necessary tragic flaws to make it work for the story, while Sarah Polley ("Go," "Guinevere") is good as the young woman repeatedly affected by his actions.

Nastassja Kinski ("Playing By Heart," "Father's Day") is credible as a terminally ill and progressively ailing woman, Milla Jovovich ("The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc," "The Fifth Element") is appropriately titillating as the local tavern and brothel owner, and Wes Bentley ("American Beauty," "Beloved") creates a strong and magnetic presence on the screen as the ambitious railroad man.

Yet, something seems to be missing from most of their characters, a fact that most likely will leave many viewers hungry for more explanations, fleshing out and development regarding them that unfortunately never comes. That's one of the film's weaker points and it shortchanges the efforts that the cast and crew put forth.

When combined with the film's occasionally episodic approach at telling its story - various jumps in time, which are often substantial, aren't always smooth or easy to perceive from scene to scene - the overall effect is that of a story that needs more time than this film's running length of just over two hours allows. It's certainly not an entirely debilitating flaw as the story manages to grow stronger and emotes more resonance as it unfolds, but it clearly prevents the film being as good as it could have been.

Others may also be disappointed that the film never really delves more than superficially into any details about the railroad experience and building of it during that time. While that's possibly another victim of being shortchanged in time, it could also be that the filmmakers were more interested in using the railway encroachment as a symbol of change rather than examining or portraying the matter in and upon itself.

Some may also believe that the filmmakers' let the cat out of its proverbial bag too soon. In this case, that's related to some important plot developments that are both relatively easy to figure out and revealed probably a bit before they should have been. Of course, the filmmakers do so in order to set up their tragedy of sorts, and for the most part, they're effective in doing just that.

It's just too bad that the feeling many viewers will be left with is that both the film and its characters were only experienced in the cinematic equivalent of skimming the surface. I found myself continually wanting to know more about the characters, their backgrounds and feelings about themselves and toward one another, but that rarely occurs on anything remotely approaching a deep, satisfying level.

Otherwise solidly told but ultimately rather mundane to watch, "The Claim" looks great and has an interesting story to tell, but feels too shortchanged to be as good as it might have been. As a result, the film rates as just a 5.5 out of 10.




Reviewed April 18, 2000 / Posted April 20, 2001


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