California, 1840s and Dillon, a young prospector, sells his wife and daughter in return for a gold claim. Twenty years later and he has become mayor of a struggling pioneer town. Dillon is desperate for a young visiting surveyor, Dalglish, to bring the railway to his town, but it is the return of his wife and daughter that holds the key to Dillon's future.
Winterbottom's wintry western, as a visual spectacle, is an excellent companion piece to Robert Altman's equally bleak McCate And Mrs. Miller . The sense of time and place is brilliantly encapsulated — this feels like a moment in history we have not visited before, and it's recalled in marvellous detail, much of it overturning 'Old West' cliches, to wit: the best realised whorehouse in Hollywood history.
The atmosphere is well sustained. Michael Nyman's score is wonderfully evocative, the sets and scenery spectacular, while the stunning photography, by cinematographer Alwin Kuchler (Ratcatcher), is simply chilling: you can actually feel the cold.
Unfortunately, if you spend too long in the cold, after a while you'll long fora cup of cocoa, and there's nothing here to warm the hands or the soul. Winterbottom keeps his characters at such a remove that we are not given a chance to really feel for them. Bentley's Dalglish is impressively complex, but unfortunately he still falls far short of a hero. As an actor Mullan would make fora fine King Lear, but his Daniel Dillon lacks that tragic dimension. As for the women, two generations of Euro beauty — Nastassja Kinski and Milla Jovovich — are apparently sharing one generation of acting talent. Only Sarah Polley, as the bartered child Hope Dillon, opens herself up enough to make you actually care what happens to her.
Winterbottom seems so afraid of melodrama that he always errs on the side of caution, underplaying every scene. In the BBC version they would be emoting until the corsets burst. It's a shame really, because in all other respects, this is fine, fine filmmaking, it's just hard to feel very involved. .
Technically first-rate, all this movie lacks is heart. Still, Winterbottom is to be congratulated on finding a small piece of undiscovered country in this well-worn terrain.