IN THE SNOWS of gold rush-era California, circa 1867, a lone man rules over a small town high in the Sierras. He's the richest, therefore he's the leader, the law, the supreme authority. But is he the luckiest? Appearances are deceptive in this loose adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 1886 novel The Mayor of Casterbridge. Dillon harbors a secret, as three newcomers gradually discover. One, Dalglish, is a railroad surveyor whose routing of the transcontinental line could multiply or dash Dillon's fortune. The other two, Elena and Hope, are a mother and daughter on an errand with life-or-death consequences.
Sarah Polley plays a woman called Hope.
directed by Michael Winterbottom with Wes Bentley, Sarah Polley, Peter Mullan, and Nastassja Kinski opens April 20 at Broadway Market
As the wary object of these emissaries, Dillon projects a sad, rueful watchfulness thanks to Peter Mullan (best known for My Name Is Joe), who invests the de facto mayor with a loneliness his station can't allay. Among the consolations of his office is the companionship of Lucia, the brothel owner (Milla Jovovich, irritatingly unsteady in her accent). She's initially jealous of young Hope (The Sweet Hereafter's Sarah Polley), with whom she also vies for the attentions of handsome, bearded Dalglish (American Beauty's Wes Bentley). Meanwhile, the tubercular cough of Elena (Nastassja Kinski) serves as a mortal metronome to the proceedings.
Accomplished young English director Michael Winterbottom has already impressed with Butterfly Kiss, Welcome to Sarajevo, and Wonderland. Having also previously adapted Jude the Obscure, he seems perfectly in synch with the famously pessimistic Hardy, using low-key, naturalistic lighting and wide camera apertures—sometimes even letting his characters wander out of focus into the swirling snow. Yet the conflicts and revelations that might be treated histrionically have a subdued quality; The Claim is a picture where hardly anyone raises their voice. Passions occasionally flare, then subside just as quickly.
Intentionally or not, the snow and muted emotions seem overly indebted to Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller (to those who can think all the way back to 1971). Winterbottom does render the frozen pioneer outpost with nice period detail (as when dolled-up Lucia and Hope traipse to a party on an elevated trestle of planks), but the clumsy dialogue portends events and encapsulates character rather too easily. As with Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, there's a certain European romanticization of the American frontier that doesn't quite translate into our vernacular. Still, the flawed Claim has its cathartic power. "They were like kings," Dalglish says of Dillon and the other forty-niners who created a rough-hewn civilization out of the wilderness. And like a certain famous old monarch raging on the heath, Dillon's ultimate loss of kingdom and family is heartbreaking for its tragic inevitability.