Snow and hardship, cold and guilt. The Claim finds poetry in dire circumstances. Inspired by Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, Michael Winterbottom’s film is set in 1867, in Kingdom Come, California. As is usual in a Hardy tale (a topic Winterbottom knows something about, having directed Jude in 1996), the weather is hard and the characters are harder. Here the primary players are caught between forging their futures (individual and communal) and regretting their pasts, conjuring up a civilization in an unforgivably brutal environment.
A brief scene about midway through the film illustrates precisely this tension and the impossibility of ever resolving it. The local madame and barkeep, Lucia (Milla Jovovich) is leading a young visitor from home to the saloon, where they will perform a song together on stage. The camera tilts up at the women as they walk, a huge sky full of dusky low-light behind them, their fancy silk dresses rustling as they gather them up in order to step daintily, as ladies must. Then the camera changes angles so that you see what they’re stepping on, which is a series of planks being laid across blocks, and there is a batch of men running to and fro, grabbing up planks and blocks from behind the women in order to lay them down in front of them, again and again—all so that the women’s fancy dresses and dainty high-heeled shoes will not be soiled by all the muddy slush.
The muddy slush—and the blizzards and the grey skies—are emblematic, of course, of hazards that must be faced in the wilderness, just as the folks’ near-comical efforts to keep their feet clean represent their aspirations for a better life, not just for wealth and comfort, but also for decorum and secure society. The very existence of Kingdom Come, the movie suggests, is the result of one man’s aspirations. Daniel Dillon (Peter Mullan) is introduced by others’ allusions and announcements. Visitors to town can’t carry firearms, by order of Mr. Dillon. When someone crosses the law, it’s Mr. Dillon who will enact the punishment—25 lashes across a bare back—for all the townsfolk to observe. When you do see him, he rather lives up to the fanfare. A sturdy Irish immigrant with a close-cut beard, he has a kind of noble bearing, and a sternness that only relaxes when he’s with Lucia. People respect Mr. Dillon. They hear tell that years ago, he came West to stake a claim, like many other prospectors before and after (the film makes no mention of people living in the area prior to the Caucasians’ incursion). Now his wholly successful enterprise, stuck up on the side of a mountain, offers respite for travelers, including the usual amenities—booze, beds, and women.
You know that something’s up with Dillon immediately, for he’s the object of a search by two out-of-town women, the mysterious Elena (Natassja Kinski, who also survived Roman Polanski’s Tess, based on yet another Hardy novel) and her daughter Hope (the incandescent Sarah Polley). Indeed, as you learn from Dillon’s occasional flashbacks (that during moments of disquiet, usually when he’s staring out a window), when he first came to the area, he sold his wife and infant for the very land—the claim—on which the town is built. That he was drunk at the time hardly excuses his choice, and while he’s now wealthy (with gold bricks stored away in a back room) and much-respected by poor folks who want to be rich, he’s feeling darn badly about the whole thing.
Elena and Hope’s appearance reignites Dillon’s sense of guilt, and oh jeez, they’re further inflamed when he learns that Elena is dying of a disease that makes her cough up blood and wear dark make-up under her eyes, and that the very significantly named Hope has no idea of her father’s identity. Well, Dillon thinks about it for a minute or two, then decides that he’ll “make it right”: he’ll give up Lucia and marry Elena (to whom he’s actually already married, but no one knows that) so that Hope can inherit all his riches, including Kingdom Come. He makes a grand display of his intentions by hiring a crew of men and horses to drag his fabulous house down the mountain, chandeliers, candlesticks, and piano clinking inside, with himself standing on the balcony when the whole business comes to a stop, right about at Elena’s sensibly-booted feet. Although she’s been quite furious at her husband for selling her and the baby long ago, well, now she takes him back.
Lucia, meanwhile, is understandably upset at this turn of events, but she’s a businesswoman, and soon figures a way to exact her revenge. This comes in the form of another visitor to town, a surveyor named Dalglish (Wes Bentley), who arrives with his team of men and fine instruments to lay down the route for the railroad to link east and west coasts. As it happens, Kingdom Come is badly positioned to take advantage of this familiar—and familiarly ironic—emblem of “progress.” When the rails are laid, Kingdom Come will be done. He encourages Lucia, who’s good at organizing money, to start her own town along the railroad line, just down the mountain from Kingdom Come. And so she does.
This chain of regret and betrayal and payback is upfront: in Hardy’s universe, characters tend to get what they deserve. As if to drive that nail just one more smidgen of an inch into Dillon’s moral coffin, there’s one other soap operatic complication leading to his inevitable downfall (and surely it’s obvious, even from this plot summary, that he will pay a terrible price for all he’s done in the name of hellbent, if not necessarily mean-spirited, capitalism). Hope falls in love with Dalglish. In case the symbolism isn’t quite crystal clear enough here—Dillon is the rapacious Past, Hope and Dalglish are the optimistic Future, less interested in individual claims than in “civilized” and mutually respectful (and white) community.
The Claim, like all of Winterbottom’s films, is quite stunning to see, full of visual splendor and detailed interiors. He and cinematographer Alwin Kulcher take full advantage of the wondrous beauty of the Canadian Rockies (the film is shot at Fortress Mountain), even amid the perpetual snow-storming demanded by the film’s rather relentless thematic concerns. The handheld camerawork and performers flailing about as the trudge through drifts and blizzards give you the sense that it’s impossible to keep up—either with the drama or the action. And this is exactly right for this saga. Dillon surely wins the prize for the most egregiously unmindful and selfish behavior, but the other characters—Lucia and Dalglish, for instance—also discover how their carelessness affects others.
To balance out and illustrate these lessons, the noble Elena must cough and weep and the innocent Hope is burdened with too much goodness (she cares for mom, is properly horrified at dad, and loves Dalglish no matter what bad deeds he commits, because that’s what you do for the man you love). It’s with such reductiveness that the film falters, lapsing into cliches and easy moral lessons when the story that has been set up appears to be more complex.