Described as “An epic set in and around the Battle of Bussaco (1810)” and designed as a TV mini-series, this handsome-looking 151-minute costume piece, which has nice crowd scenes, is a meandering and episodic war story that recreates the chaos of Tolstoy’s Battle of Waterloo without the grandeur and ultimate sense. There are many mini-plots, none of which catch lasting emotional hold. The film represents a project begun by the lat Raúl Ruíz, completed by his widow, Valeria Sarmiento. A cast almost absurdly rich in well-known names includes John Malkovich (as Wellington), Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Mathieu Amalric, Vincent Pérez, Marisa Paredes, Chiara Mastroianni, Melvil Poupaud, Michel Piccoli, Elsa Zylberstein, Christian Vadim. Vincent Lindon, and Malik Zidi. Malkovich is ageeably diseagreable as usual, and Amalric does a voice-over in French, but most of the others just appear in brief ‘wow” cameos. Despite big festival showings (Venice, Toronto, New York) and a theatrical release, this isn’t a film that has box office potential and may function best as a rainy day soporific.
There is barely any one thread (other than the fact of the war going on) that links the whole rambling thing together, or makes us care, and that includes the fortifications referred to as the Lines of Wellington. The atmosphere, and the historical events referred to, would be of special interest to Portuguese viewers, though as in Ruíz’s previous work the confounding but rich Mysteries of Lisbon, there is dialogue in English, French, and Portuguese.
Jay Wsissberg sums things up in his Variety review thus: “Expectations were high, given Ruiz’s pre-production input and the participation of “Mysteries of Lisbon” scripter Carlos Saboga, along with d.p. Andre Szankowski, but alas, “Wellington” is stringy beef. Aiming for a Tolstoyan vibe that personalizes history’s great events, the pic is big, but not big enough; historical, but not exactly accurate; and the extra stuffing, which made “Mysteries” a treasure box of discoveries, here feels merely undigested.”
Telling a story of masses of man and large events while focusing on the ordinary folk and still including scenes of major figures is a tricky balancing act, and this film does not perform it successfully, seeming indeed indifferent to the need for subordination and clear guidelines.
A wounded lieutenant, Pedro de Alencar (Carloto Cotta) is the closest thing to a linking figure. He appears repeatedly, first wounded on the battlefield, then in hospital, later escaping in hospital gown to be protected by an older lady, finally, recovered serving in a motley unit till he rejoins the platoon he commanded originally.
But if this is a “miniseries,” maybe it was cut, and cut badly. The original intentions of Carlos Saboga may have been lost — or never defined. An unfortunate aspect, for following the action in a feature film format, is the lack of intertitles and the frequency in which characters occur who speak both Portuguese and English and are of mixed origin. With a chaotic palette it would have helped to draw the lines carefully and clearly. It’s not that difficult; but it’s not that easy, either.
What we learn at the outset is that the Portuguese allied with the English are the local victors, but have to withdraw because the French still outnumber them. The finale leaves us with a vague sense of victory for the Portuguese-British side, but without anything to rejoice over. The final text describes the country as ravaged for years to come by this warfare.
As Weissberg says, if you loved Mysteries of Lisbon (which does have its enchantments despite its being harder to follow) there may be some carry-over to liking Lines of Wellington. But not much, really.
Screened for this review as part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center.
Director: Valeria Sarmiento
Writer: Carlos Saboga
Stars: Nuno Lopes, Soraia Chaves, Marisa Paredes
Runtime: 180 min
Country: France, Portugal