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NYFF: ‘Lines of Wellington’ Tries For Epic Status But Spreads Itself Way Too Thin

By  · Published on October 10th, 2012

Reaching back into the pantheon of war movies over the course of film history, there are countless films about Vietnam, WWII, The Civil War, and the Revolutionary War. Amongst that pantheon, it’s difficult to pick out a film about the Napoleonic Wars… though did we need to? Not exactly. Valeria Sarmiento’s Lines of Wellington, a project she took over from her late husband, director Raúl Ruiz (whose finished film, Night Across The Street, is also in the NYFF 2012 Main Slate), takes place during the Napoleonic War in 1810 Portugal, as the Portuguese sided with the British against the French.

With nearly a three-hour running time, the film attempts to cover a broad spectrum of characters and history. It definitely looks great, with impressive production values and a somewhat A-List cast, but ultimately it is too expansive not to be a miniseries (a longer cut of the film will air as a miniseries in Portugal).

The film focuses on several interwoven stories. These include Portuguese Sergeant Francisco Xavier (Nuno Lopez) who falls in love with British army wife Maureen (Jemima West) after her husband dies in battle. The British General Wellington (John Malkovich) who has issues with all paintings that royal painter Lévêque (Vincent Perez) produces… he also takes issue with his namesake dish “Beef Wellington.” Injured young Portuguese soldier Lieutenant Pedro de Alencar (Carloto Cotta) who takes shelter in the home of an older woman, Dona Filipa (Marisa Paredes). Also, sexually rambunctious seventeen-year-old British girl Clarissa Warren (Victória Guerra), who sets her sights on uptight Major Jonathan Foster (Marcello Urgeghe). For good measure, there are some A-list French actors thrown in, whose roles only amount to extended cameos – these actors include Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Michel Piccoli, Mathieu Amalric, and Chiara Mastroianni.

The film’s scope is definitely impressive as are these many casting boons. The production values are first rate, and all sets and costumes are authentic-looking (not a bad wig in sight). The standout storylines are of Francisco/Maureen (they fall in love but don’t speak each other’s native language) and of Dona Filipa/Pedro (he escapes from the French and the two bond). All of the actors playing these parts also go above and beyond, and it’s always a thrill to see Malkovich when not expecting him; while he probably should have watched more Masterpiece Theatre to brush up on that accent, he hams it up and never fails to be amusing.

The casting does pose some problems, however. Guerra and Urgeghe are both native Portguese actors playing British people, and their Portuguese-accented English is a bit distracting. It’s also a bit strange that Deneuve, Huppert, Piccoli, Amalric and Mastroianni only have one scene (Amalric and Mastroianni appear separately from the others) and their brief moments do feel somewhat tacked on.

The main issue with this film is that it’s simply spread too thin. An honest attempt is made to follow those tangential stories that arise from within the landscape of war, but there are just too many to focus on. It is therefore impossible for any of these characters to come close to three-dimensional, or even affect personalities at all. Their relationships are never developed so it’s very difficult to care when they come to harm or good fortune. This would have been a much stronger film – and a much shorter one – if the director had chosen to focus on only one of these stories.

The film tries hard to be an “epic,” given the expanse of characters and the overall runtime. A longer cut will air as a miniseries, and the movie version certainly plays like a miniseries in its blandness and straightforward direction. It has the breadth of that medium without the follow through, and the feature length is actually not long enough to develop what needs to be developed here. Ruiz directed an acclaimed four-hour miniseries, The Mysteries of Lisbon, and perhaps the miniseries cut of this film will be better than what’s hit the festivals, but ultimately it does not succeed as a theatrically released film.

Lines of Wellington is a beautiful-looking production with a great scope, but it doesn’t follow through on the grandeur it promises. There is just too much to fit into a feature-length film, and what makes it into the film seems truncated and underdeveloped. War films succeed when you care about the human element whose lives are at stake, and that is definitely not the case here. The film is a valiant effort, but choosing to encompass so much in one feature-length film was a grave mistake.

The Upside: The grandeur of the production is impressive. Also, it’s impossible not to enjoy that bizarre performance from John Malkovich.

The Downside: There are too many characters and it becomes near impossible for any of them to have actual personalities… or for the audience to care about them.

On the Side: While they shared no scenes together in this film, Catherine Deneuve and Vincent Perez got hot and heavy in the drama Indochine (1992).

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