The words that often strike dread into the hearts of literature lovers are "Inspired by." After all, films that are "based on" books often bear little enough resemblance to their sources. But "inspired by" can also denote truly creative license. The new film The Claim, written for the screen by Frank Cottrell Boyce and directed by Michael Winterbottom, fits the bill, making inspired use of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge. Both previously collaborated on the grisly lesbian drama Butterfly Kiss, and here their detached affect is well suited to this icy story. Transplanting Hardy's story from 1840's England to the Sierra Nevada's of post-Gold Rush California, Winterbottom travels in space but hardly in time, discovering a fresh visual metaphor for the buttoned-down emotions of late nineteenth-century stories. Warm hearts pulse under the packed snow of The Claim, but only acts of God and the Central Pacific Railroad can bring them to the surface.
Despite being billed fourth, the towering figure of the film is Peter Mullan. He plays Dillon, the pioneer "king" of the mountain town ominously named Kingdom Come. Dillon rules with an iron fist, but turns on the charm for Wes Bentley's railroad man Daglish, whose say-so takes the railroad to Kingdom Come—or not. If it's possible, Dillon has an even greater concern, which appears in the form of two women from his past: Elena (Natassja Kinski) and her daughter Hope (Sarah Polley). These three threats to Dillon's ordered universe turn up the heat on his love, pride, helplessness, guilt and rage, spurring increasingly grander efforts to manifest his sense of power.
Winterbottom's curiously staid style works both for and against him in The Claim. He gets austerely beautiful contributions from cinematographer Alwin Kuchler and composer Michael Nyman. Mullan's performance also provides considerable mileage, but Boyce's screenplay frustratingly dissipates the focus on Dillon, by trying and failing to make as compelling a story out of Daglish's railroad work or his befuddling advances to two women at once: Hope and Dillon's kept woman Lucia (Milla Jovovich). Each of these plot threads stops short of developing a compelling interest, and the character motivations sometimes remain obscure.
To see this story more through Dillon's paranoid eyes might have colored each of these threads more compellingly, while allowing more focus on the key characters. As it is, the supporting players offer solid work, but only Mullan, Kinski, and Polley truly register. For many, the potent wrap-up (which neatly resolves the visual metaphor) may not be worth the long trudge through the snow.