Behind the remarkable range of British director Michael Winterbottom’s filmography to date, there’s a consistent interest in the interaction between characters and their environment: the open road of Butterfly Kiss (1995), the war zone of Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), the bleak coastal town in I Want You (1998) and the metropolitan jungle of the bittersweet Wonderland (1999). It’s a concern which equips him well to take on the fraught task of adapting Thomas Hardy for the screen, as he demonstrated in Jude (1995). His latest film, The Claim, again turns to Hardy for its source material, but dramatically relocates the narrative of The Mayor of Casterbridge to California during the 1849 gold rush, reproducing the fatalistic grandeur of Hardy’s Wessex in the scale and beauty of the snow-covered mountains.
Actor and sometime director Peter Mullan (My Name is Joe, Orphans) stars as Irish pioneer Daniel Dillon, who strikes a Faustian pact in a moment of drunken madness, trading his wife Elena and baby daughter Hope for a bag of gold. Twenty years later, he owns and runs Kingdom Come, a thriving mountain town whose future survival rests on the approaching railroad. A more pressing worry, however, is the arrival of Elena (Nastassja Kinski), now seriously ill and anxious to secure Daniel’s inheritance for Hope (Sarah Polley), who still doesn’t know who her father really is.
The plot brings together turning points in both the family’s affairs and the area’s encroaching industrialisation when Hope falls in love with the dashing railway surveyor, Dalglish (Wes Bentley). Overall, though, the changes being visited upon the Old West seem of less interest to Winterbottom and his scriptwriter Frank Cotterell Boyce (a previous collaborator on Butterfly Kiss and Welcome to Sarajevo) than the character drama, the shift in time and place only emphasising the universality of Hardy’s themes of guilt and redemption.
Dolby digital stereo.