Remember the name: Michael Winterbottom. Not yet 40 and already the director of eight features, Winterbottom is the remarkably versatile, remarkably gifted Englishman one great film away from a place among today's moviemaking elite. His latest and most ambitious effort, The Claim, won't be that launching pad. A romantic epic set just after the California gold rush, it's too subdued, too snowy (literally and figuratively) to reach a big audience. But like almost everything else the director has touched, whether scaled small or grand, set in the Old West or today's London, it's beautifully acted and physically sumptuous, marked by moments of rare visual power. Only a few other directors--Martin Scorsese, certainly, but also Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern; To Live) and Claire Denis (I Can't Sleep; Beau Travail)--so deeply understand that an exalted cinema depends on the intense interplay of music and image as well as word. Even when his films don't fully come together, their individual elements haunt, like Alwin Kuchler's bleached cinematography, so delicate and yet chilling, in The Claim. Winterbottom is no flashy, MTV-schooled showboat. He's a master director from the old school, an unfashionably fast and hard worker who puts together a team of ideal collaborators and lets them show their stuff.
His first feature, Butterfly Kiss (1994), was an instant attention-getter. The bare-bones description--a lesbian serial killer and her lover take to the road--wasn't promising, and some critics foolishly dismissed it as a low-rent Thelma and Louise. In fact, the film is a searing study in neediness and redemption, made unforgettable by the furious performances of Amanda Plummer (as the sociopath Eunice) and Saskia Reeves (as Miriam, her lonely companion). Set in a northern British nowhere of anonymous highways and tacky rest stops--an emotional prison in the open air--Butterfly Kiss showcased the director's ability to turn even the emptiest of atmospheres into a vivid force, almost a character of its own. It also marked his first big-screen collaboration with the equally eclectic screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce.
In 1995 Winterbottom directed two dramas: Go Now, about a man struck by multiple sclerosis, and Jude, a solemn adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, starring Christopher Eccleston and Kate Winslet. Already it was clear that Winterbottom was drawn to material about society's outsiders, and could create sympathy even for difficult characters, like Plummer's Eunice or Rachel Griffiths's Arabella, in Jude. Yet unlike the directors he admires, Truffaut and Bergman, Winterbottom doesn't have a signature style or even recurring themes. He's the anti-auteur; he's good at many things.
Welcome to Sarajevo (1996), the director's biggest international success so far, showed a polemical streak unseen in his work before or since. Mixing big American stars like Woody Harrelson with Europe's best, including Stephen Dillane and Goran Visnjic, the film is as raw and anguished as the documentary footage, shot on location, that Winterbottom laces throughout the narrative. Boyce loosely based his script on the true-life story of a journalist on a personal crusade to smuggle to safety one child from the remnants of the former Yugoslavia. This storyline gives the film a strong spine, while the jagged, restless camerawork reflects the struggle to make sense out of a senseless situation. Working in the heat of the moment, Winterbottom and company loosened up in Welcome to Sarajevo and created one of the few films made in English that successfully captures the madness of the Balkans.
In 1997 Winterbottom served up his only true misfire, I Want You, a mannered study of romantic obsession. He planned next to work again with Boyce, this time on another Hardy adaptation, which they would set in the American West. But "there's no point in just sitting around and doing nothing while you're waiting to raise the money," Winterbottom told one interviewer. "So I just got on with making some of the other interesting scripts that were offered to me." He shot not one, but two: the Belfast-set With or Without You, which wasn't released in the United States, and the moving ensemble drama Wonderland, which was, and remains one of the best films of 2000. Over the course of four days, three working-class sisters struggle to find connection and to stay afloat in the moneyed new order of Tony Blair's Cool Britannia. Screenwriter Laurence Coriat memorably etches a cast of wry and wounded Londoners, but it's Winterbottom's inspired direction that makes magic in Wonderland. Grainily shot with a handheld camera, yet set to Michael Nyman's lushly aching score, the film builds to what can only be called a state of grace.
The Claim, Winterbottom and Boyce's rewrite of Hardy's novel The Mayor of Casterbridge, has much to praise as well. The film conjures the Old West in its rough-hewn adolescence. The discovery of gold has led a town called Kingdom Come to rise from the snows of the Sierra Nevada. Yet the mountain town and the expansionist nation itself are built on a dark and guilty foundation. The West of The Claim is boisterous, lusty, and a little messy, full of flawed characters struggling to make up for their mistakes. But the romantic drama at the film's heart is sometimes pale when it should be full-blooded. Still, there's more here to look at, listen to, and think about than in most other films with twice the budget. Of course there is. It's by Michael Winterbottom. Remember the name. ¤