Despite being his seventh feature in six years, this $15 million, entirely-shot-on-location adaptation of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor Of Casterbridge is easily Michael Winterbottom's most ambitious venture to date. Yet, while The Claim finds its roots in Hardy, two Westerns in particular have influenced Britain's hardest working helmer.
From Robert Altman's McCabe And Mrs Miller, there's the gritty, downbeat portrayal of frontier life, where cherished dreams clash with bitter realities. And from Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West there's the crucial theme of the arrival of the railroad, symbolising the unstoppable progress of capitalism. Plus, like The Claim, both these earlier films crucially undercut traditional cinematic notions of heroic cowboys.
But the real strength of Winterbottom's latest is that it tells a story which is both historically specific and culturally universal. Against the fascinating backdrop of the gold rush aftermath, screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce homes in on the experiences of one family as a way of examining themes of love and death, greed and sacrifice, loss and redemption.
The melting-pot nature of pioneer America is emphasised in the mixture of voices, accents and nationalities that appear in the streets, bars and brothels of Kingdom Come. Moreover, the cosmopolitan casting adds a sense of authenticity to this story of immigrants struggling against the elements to build a future for themselves in this most inhospitable of terrains.
Driven by some excellent performances from the cast, The Claim unfolds with a tragic inexorability, in which actions and expressions prove far more telling than the dialogue, and in which the harsh beauty of the Rockies provides an epic canvas to the emotional turmoil.
Mixing handheld camerawork for the interiors with static long shots for the mountains, cinematographer Alwin Kuchler films a series of arresting set-pieces: Dillon's house being dragged across the snow on ropes, the laying of the railway in the virgin territory, a spectacular, dynamite-driven avalanche...
It's refreshing to see an English director working within a traditionally American genre, and yet maintaining an outsider's perspective. The Claim both celebrates the process by which men like Dillon built modern America, and it laments the avarice and selfish-ness that propelled them. The Claim is Winterbottom's most accomplished film yet, and it deserves to tap a more mainstream audience.