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Michael Winterbottom's 'The Claim' delivers an emotionally stillborn morality tale

By Nicole McEwan

'EVERYTHING HAS A PRICE." So goes the tag line for Michael Winterbottom's The Claim. An emotionally stillborn morality tale set in a remote snowbound California mining town, this disappointing adaptation delivers stunning visuals. Sadly, the characters just can't compete with the scenery.

With a series of meat puppets standing in for fully fleshed-out characters, whatever Rocky Mountain High cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler (Ratcatcher) delivers dissipates long before the credits roll.

Ostensibly based on Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, the story has been sloppily transplanted from provincial 19th-century Dorchester to the Gold Rush-era Rocky Mountains on the eve of the construction of the transcontinental Railroad. In Hardy's novel, a drunk man seeking freedom sells his wife and infant daughter to a lonely sailor. It's a Faustian bargain, and the fortune that eventually results buys only cold comfort.

In The Claim, the premise is similar, but greed becomes the singular motivation for the fateful transaction, undermining the story's innate complexity. The result is a movie easily summed up with one trite adage: "All that glitters is not gold."

Winterbottom, who directed 1995's Jude--a masterful and tragically underseen retelling of Hardy's Jude the Obscure--certainly has the pedigree for such potentially weighty material, which makes The Claim's failure to ignite all the more surprising.

Fans of Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller will feel perfectly at home in the bawdy environs of Kingdom Come, the insular town run by the filthy rich gold miner Daniel Dillon (Peter Mullen). As empires go, it's fairly basic: a few ramshackle dwellings, a general store, a lively bordello/casino run by Dillon's fetching mistress, Lucia (Milla Jovovich) and a bank to hold Dillon's stash of gold bars.

The town's most ornate structure by far is the gold baron's Victorian abode, a clapboard and gingerbread construction stuffed to the gables with antiques, china and all manner of finery imported from around the globe. Somehow, it's a house without being a home. It doesn't take long to figure out why.

The film opens with the arrival of three strangers. Dalglish (American Beauty's Wes Bentley), is the railroad surveyor who holds the town's fate in his grasp. Dillon, a shrewd businessman recognizes the importance of the occasion and immediately sets about bribing the young man with wine, women and song.

In reality, it's the sickly Elena (Nastassja Kinski) and her daughter, Hope (Sarah Polley), who will bring about his inevitable downfall by uncovering the secret that defines him.

Winterbottom's use of flashbacks to explain Elena and Hope's identity is so elliptical and ill-timed it confuses more than it informs. Frank Cottrell Boyce's stilted dialogue adds little to a series of terminally understated performances composed almost exclusively by silent glances and longing stares.

Kinski's presence is particularly confounding. Made famous by her ingenue performance in Tess (Roman Polanski's Hardy adaptation), she gets little more to do than cough. Only Mullen commands the screen in any visceral way--only to be cursed with an overtly Baroque final scene that tilts wildly toward caricature.

Seen purely as an experiment, The Claim proves: Yes, you can take a Thomas Hardy novel out of England. You can even make it into a Western. Given the meager results, one can only wonder: Why bother?

The Claim (R; 120 min.), directed by Michael Winterbottom, written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, based on the novel by Thomas Hardy, photographed by Alwin Kuchler and starring Wes Bentley, Peter Mullan and Nastassja Kinski plays at selected theaters.

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Web extra to the May 10-16, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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