When Raul Ruiz died last year, his widow, versatile helmer Valeria Sarmiento, took over his last project, the grandiose Napoleonic epic “Lines of Wellington.” 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.
While hardly Sarmiento’s Waterloo, “Lines” isn’t a victory for Ruiz’s memory either, though fests looking to pay tribute to the master have cleared room on their schedules. With its stellar cast of cameos and the memory of “Mysteries” still fresh, it’s possible a limited arthouse release could make it Stateside, but a Portuguese-French rollout will likely constitute the majority of standard-bearers.
Saboga’s script isn’t based on a previous text, yet it feels like it’s sticking too closely to a novel: Brief scenes providing little texture or valuable counterpoint are included, as if the information had to be crammed in to be faithful to a (nonexistent) work. When great stars like Michel Piccoli, Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Huppert appear (all in the same scene), the results are delightful and provide valuable threads in the busy tapestry, but too often the excess of characters are distractions that overload the tableau.
Despite the large cast, it’s generally not a problem keeping track of either the people or the story. The action takes place in 1810, when beleaguered Anglo-Portuguese forces led by Wellington (John Malkovich) achieve a minor victory over Napoleon’s advancing army under the command of Marshal Andre Massena (Melvil Poupaud). Though Wellington wins the battle, he knows his allied forces are outnumbered, and orders a retreat to massive defenses he’s had built outside Lisbon, where he hopes to rout the French.
Wellington’s scorched-earth policy, aimed at starving the enemy, exacerbates the trials of a populace already fleeing the oncoming French, and country roads are choked with refugees of all social classes. The visual impact of this is compromised, however, since Sarmiento concentrates on one thin line of evacuees, diminishing the sense of mass chaos and deprivation that’s a key element to her story. Fewer speaking roles and more extras would provide a greater sense of war’s disruptive force.
The French side of the tale is haphazardly narrated by Massena’s aide, Marbot (Mathieu Amalric), though his contribution is minimal, and the majority of voiceover is provided by Portuguese Sgt. Francisco Xavier, aka “Chico” (Nuno Lopes), a former farmer. A counterpoint is the story of aristocratic Lt. Pedro de Alancar (Carloto Cotta), wounded in battle and cared for by a series of ladies, none more luminous than Marisa Paredes’ Dona Filipa.
While not exactly foot soldiers, these low-ranking officers are the saga’s main focus, with historical figures providing touches of pseudo-authenticity, much in the style of “War and Peace,” if not as historically accurate. Sarmiento and Saboga are less interested in humanizing legends than they are in finding the humanity among the masses affected by the carnage: brutal rapes (by the enemy French or allied English, never the Portuguese) share this thickly woven canvas with unexpected acts of kindness, and while Napoleon’s forces are beaten, the pic refuses to celebrate a victory won at such a high cost.
Largely due to script weaknesses, neither Chico nor Pedro develop beyond a basic decency, which leaves the myriad side-characters to give the story color. Their success depends on the caliber of the performers, and unfortunately not all the actors Paredes’ chops. The English (largely thesped by Portuguese players) are particularly poorly drawn, from upper-crust refugee and incestuous twit Clarissa Warren (Victoria Guerra, insufferable), to Malkovich’s Wellington himself (at the time an earl and not yet, as the script states, a duke). Why Saboga chose to paint one of the world’s greatest tacticians as dilettantish and effete is a mystery, in line with Massena’s boorish table manners.
It’s at the table scene however, hosted by Piccoli as Swiss merchant Schweitzer, with his wife (Deneuve) and sister-in-law (Huppert), that “Lines” comes alive. That’s largely because these actors effortlessly dissolve the artificiality of so much of the dialogue, creating a believable world that captures haute bourgeois life in a battle zone. Unfortunately this sequence points up problems elsewhere, such as the senseless recurring figure of a mute young wretch (Joao Luis Arrais) who seems straight out of a Monty Python parody.
Szankowski’s lensing is most interesting indoors, where controlled light and space offer him greater opportunities for evocative framing; though exteriors are captured with fluid visuals, there’s a generic quality that doesn’t make enough of an impact. Sweeping music, especially choral tracks more at home in a James Cameron pic, would be better toned down. Though a rich canvas, “Lines of Wellington” too often resembles the paintings passed off in the film as the work of mediocre artist Henri Leveque (Vincent Perez): few shadows, dully colored, and a blocky replica of the real thing.