Lines of Wellington (Linhas de Wellington): Venice Review

Valeria Sarmiento's 2 1/2-hour condensation of a three-part television miniseries provides an engaging but old-fashioned dramatization of war in 19th century Portugal.

A star-studded international cast including John Malkovich and Catherine Deneuve feature in a historical epic, co-produced by Portugal and France.

A sprawlingly wide canvas of historical war is painted in old-fashioned but engagingly functional style in mid-ranking Golden Lion contender Lines of Wellington (Linhas de Wellington). Under preparation by revered Chilean master Raúl Ruiz at the time of his death last August, this French-Portuguese co-production dramatizing a key 1810/11 incident in the Peninsular War has been brought to fruition by his widow and longtime editor Valeria Sarmiento.

This august pedigree, plus the presence of several international stars in supporting and cameo roles such as John Malkovich, Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Huppert, ensure prestige status at festivals with Toronto, San Sebastian and New York already lined up after its world premiere in Venice Competition.

PHOTOS: Venice Film Festival Day 3
Like Ruiz's last international success Mysteries of Lisbon (2010), Lines of Wellington is available as both a theatrical picture and as a miniseries for television - the latter, expanding the 151-minute movie to three episodes running 170 minutes in total, has the original title As Linhas de Torres Vedras. A Portuguese release is set for Oct. 4, and the patriotic subject-matter could lure older audiences, but overseas distribution will likely be spotty and the French, their armed forces cast as the sometimes bestial villains of the piece here, are likely to prove shoulder-shrugglingly dismissive.
It helps to have a little familiarity with the war depicted, in which the British forces under Wellington (Malkovich) helped the Portuguese resist the mighty invading forces of Napoleonic France led by Massena (Melvil Poupaud). But historians will be bemused by certain decisions here, such as the presentation of Massena as a much younger and more energetic man than Wellington whereas in fact the opposite was true - the future Duke was at this point in fact only 41.

But these major figures of history are largely relegated to the peripheries by scriptwriter Carlos Saboga, who emphasizes the human cost of conflict by means of fictional figures drawn from the British and Portuguese sides. First among equals in the international ensemble are Tabu's Carloto Cotta as a wounded soldier and Blood of My Blood's Nuno Lopes as one of his comrades-in-arms, the latter also serving as occasional narrator. Women are very much to the fore, with Victória Guerra and Jemima West as young British ladies caught up in the tumult of history.
Saboga moves quite fluidly between plots and subplots as the various characters travel through war-scarred Portugal towards the "lines" of the title, vast fortifications secretly constructed in the Lisbon hinterland in order to protect the strategically crucial capital. And while audiences expecting a mammoth battle at the climax are in for disappointment, the picture does adhere to historical facts which dictate a somewhat bathetic conclusion to this particular episode.

This ending can't help but feel a little flat, with Wellington himself only fleetingly seen. Up to this point Malkovich's character has mainly functioned as a kind of comic relief, chiefly concerned with the paintings he has commissioned to preserve his appearance and exploits for posterity. He has much more to do than the likes of Deneuve, Huppert, Michel Piccoli, Mathieu Amalric and Chiara Mastroianni, popping up to in effect pay their professional respects to Sarmiento and her late husband.

And whereas Ruiz was known for films that combined visual elegance with highbrow erudition, Sarmiento here allows herself just a single "flight of fancy" as Cotta's injured soldier hallucinates an opulent soiree. Elsewhere she sticks to the muddy, grueling reality of bygone wartime with results that may be more pedestrian than visionary but serve their purpose as an elaborate, illustrated history-lesson.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Orizzonti), September 4 2012
Production company: Alfama Films, France 3 Cinéma
Cast: Carloto Cotta, Nuno Lopes, Victória Guerra, Marcello Urgeghe, John Malkovich, Jemima West

Director: Valeria Sarmiento
Screenwriter: Carlos Saboga
Producer: Paulo Branco
Director of photography:
André Szankowski
Production designer / Costume designer: Isabel Branco
Music: Jorge Arriagada
Valeria Sarmiento, Luca Alverdi
Sales agent: Alfama Films, Lisbon
No MPAA rating, 151 minutes