Director Michael Winterbottom adapts Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge to the gold rush years. Twenty years after a gold miner sold his wife and daughter to a prospector in exchange for his claim to a gold mine, they unexpectedly show up at his doorstep.
Life is hard, the drinkin' is hard, and the women are hard in the roughneck California town of Kingdom Come, established and run by wealthy, powerful gold miner Daniel Dillon (Peter Mullan) after he became rich off the claim he bought off a lonely prospector. Over the years Dillon's felt a bit guilty about his riches, though, seeing as how he got the land by selling his wife and baby daughter to the prospector. Ah, well, he's made a good life for himself and chanteuse mistress Lucia (Milla Jovovich), and things are looking even better. The railroad surveyors, headed by Donald Dalgliesh (Wes Bentley), have just come in to inspect the area, and if all goes well the railroad will pass through Kingdom Come. Also in on the last train? Dillon's now terminally ill wife Elena (Nastassja Kinski) and grown-up daughter, Hope (Sarah Polley).
A stoic Mullan doesn't express much sentiment about anything; when you consider he's supposed to feel guilty as hell about what he did, you'd expect a wee bit more emotion. He does a lot of staring out windows and some hollering. Bearded and shaggy, Bentley fits into the Old West quite nicely, although his character could have been more dynamic. Polley's Hope was disappointingly flat, too. Where was the guy in charge of character development when they wrote this script? Kinski, perhaps because she didn't have that much to do, gives a credible performance as a devoted mother whose only desire is to protect her child before she dies. But it's Jovovich, playing the most vibrant character in the movie, who gives a surprisingly remarkable turn as an abrasive, fiery dancehall prostitute.
If you like watching a generally unattractive bunch live the hard life in the bleak, snowy Rockies, this one's for you. The film definitely portrays a harsh pioneer town as one would imagine it, beyond the shoot-'em-up cowboy stuff of typical Westerns. But prepare yourself for a long haul. Winterbottom takes the mildly interesting but already melodramatic story and infuses it with so many stylistic visuals and sweeping scenes--not to mention too many unnecessary characters--that it slows to an interminable, squirm-in-your-seat pace. Michael Nyman's score is about the only moving thing about it. Jovovich sings too much.
Winterbottom veers so far from the typical Western that The Claim becomes too sweeping and subtle for its own good.