Films don't get much chillier than "The Claim."
And that statement doesn't just refer to the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains that provide the backdrop for this stylish but disappointing period drama; it refers also to a certain remoteness that makes a potentially interesting story nearly unwatchable.
Unfortunately, that seems to be something of a recurring problem for the filmmaker, director Michael Winterbottom, who has experienced the same problem each time out (his previous two U.S. releases were 1997's "Welcome to Sarajevo" and last year's "Wonderland").
And though this film does have an interesting visual style, Winterbottom never really seems to connect with his story or characters. And, unfortunately, it shows. Consequently, "The Claim" feels even more remote than its location. And that makes it hard to even care about the characters or the story (inspired by Thomas Hardy's novel "The Mayor of Casterbridge").
Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce do keep some of the novel's situations and characters intact, but the focus has been shifted to a different character and to post-Gold Rush California.
The lead role here is a railroad surveyor named Dalglish played by Wes Bentley, in his most high-profile role since his debut in "American Beauty." He has come to the thriving mountain community of Kingdom Come to explore the feasibility of running the railroad through the town. But in the pursuit of his duties, he becomes involved with two different women entertainer/brothel owner Lucia (Milla Jovovich at her most lispy) and Hope (Sarah Polley), a young woman with ulterior motives of her own. It turns out that Hope and her ailing mother, Elena (Nastassja Kinski), have come to see the town's wealthy leader Dillon (Scottish actor Peter Mullan), who in turn is determined to get the much-needed railroad spur at any cost.
To be fair, the film does have a few fascinating scenes, such as house-moving sequence (though that was done better recently in "The Widow of Saint-Pierre"). But problems start when the film concentrates on the wrong lead character.
While Bentley's characteristic cool has served him well in the past, here it works to the film's disadvantage, and as a result, the story is following a character who holds no interest.
On the other hand, Mullan's tragically power-hungry Dillon is far more compelling but only emerges as a strong character well past the film's midway point, and by then it's far too late for the film to recover.
The movie also wastes its talented female co-stars. As hard as Polley tries, her character is something of a cipher, and though Kinski does generate some interest, her character is given the film's most cliched story arc.
"The Claim" is rated R for violence (mostly gunplay), female nudity, scattered profanity and simulated sex. Running time: 120 minutes.
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