THE CLAIM directed by Michael Winterbottom, written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, produced by Andrew Eaton, with Wes Bentley, Sarah Polley, Peter Mullan, Milla Jovovich, Nastassja Kinski and Julian Richings. 120 minutes. An Alliance Atlantis production. An Odeon Films release. For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 81. Rating: NNN
director michael winterbottom must have a jones for hard work. Since the mid-90s he's routinely released two films a year. Wonderland, I Want You, Welcome To Sarajevo, Jude, Go Now, Butterfly Kiss -- for many directors that's a career. For Winterbottom it's a sampling of the past half-decade.There are dividends to this kind of output. Watching his newest film, The Claim, it's clear how practised his eye is, how sure his feel for the cinematic moment. Winterbottom's filmmaking has reached the point where he's speaking purely through cinema, not just using the tools of cinema to express ideas formed elsewhere.
Most scenes in The Claim are stitched together from well-chosen close-ups, glimpses that go for the significant emotion. Rarely does the film plod from master-shot to medium to close-up, as staid or insecure directors often do.
It's too bad, then, that with all this sophistication, the story lags behind.
Wes Bentley, American Beauty's tortured videographer, plays a railroad engineer in 1860s California. He lands in a mountain town run by Daniel Dillon (Peter Mullan), who founded the place on his gold-rush fortune.
But Dillon's empire is rattled by the return of mother and daughter Nastassja Kinski and Sarah Polley, who know the gold baron's ugly past.
The Claim's acknowledged inspiration is Thomas Hardy's The Mayor Of Casterbridge, but it has as much in common with Robert Altman's McCabe And Mrs. Miller. Like McCabe, it's a triumph of style and characterization. But the story's big secret is telegraphed early, then allowed to unspool at enormous leisure. And the moral and spiritual fallout from that secret is left under-explored.
Still, the performances are first-rate. Polley and Mullan are typically natural and nuanced, and Milla Jovovich leaps miles beyond her past work.