“You wouldn’t have put it past Raúl Ruiz to direct a film from beyond the grave,” wrote Geoffrey Macnab for the Guardian last month, almost a year to the day after the Chilean filmmaker died in Paris at the age of 70. Ruiz had been working on Lines of Wellington, “a Napoleonic-era epic, a ‘Portuguese War and Peace,’ set in 1810 as the French troops battled with a British and Portuguese army commanded by General Wellington.” The cast, “led by John Malkovich, Isabelle Huppert and Catherine Deneuve, was assembling when Ruiz died. Rather than abandon the project, the producer Paulo Branco decided to continue, and began shooting two months later. Ruiz’s editor and widow Valeria Sarmiento took over directorial duties; Branco told the press this was “a Raúl Ruiz film… directed by Valeria Sarmiento.”
“For all its faults, it’s full of life,” finds the Guardian‘s Xan Brooks. “Ruiz and Sarmiento’s film recounts the tale of the Napoleonic invasion of Portugal and the withdrawal of Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese forces to the southern hill country. The general’s devastating tactic was to compensate for his army’s comparative lack of numbers by luring the French into hostile terrain, fortifying the lines of Bussaco and picking the invaders off as they climbed the slopes. And yet the Wellington we see here is hardly the all-seeing genius we know from popular history. Played by John Malkovich (ripe as an October apple), he comes across as a preening little despot, more concerned with publicity than practicality. Wellington is concerned about the battle scenes daubed by his official army painter (‘more panache, less corpses’). He’s wondering whether he should be offended by having a meat dish named after him. His mind’s not really on the job in hand. Instead, Linhas de Wellington salutes the supporting characters, the unsung heroes.”
“Sarmiento—Ruiz’s editor but also an experienced director in her own right—weaves gracefully betwixt and between soldiers and civilians on all sides, rich and poor, men and women, even the living and the dead,” writes Tom Charity for Cinema Scope. “Despite the title, John Malkovich’s Wellington is little more than a cameo; the cast is laden with enough stars to qualify as a kind of Franco Thin Red Line. But for all its shifting horrors, war is also in unexpected ways a liberating force, and Sarmiento’s fluid, fluent classical mise en scène illuminates moments of love and brotherhood that stand in sharp relief against the chaos. Showing in San Sebastian as a three part, 170-minute miniseries, it remains a fine, rich, humanist tapestry in the two-and-a-half-hour theatrical cut.”
Malkovich at least “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,” notes Neil Young in the Hollywood Reporter. “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 [Carloto] 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.”
“Expectations were high, given Ruiz’s pre-production input and the participation of Mysteries of Lisbon scripter Carlos Saboga, along with DP Andre Szankowski, but alas, Wellington is stringy beef,” finds Jay Weissberg in the Variety. “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.”
Screen‘s Lee Marshall finds that it “meanders along pleasantly enough, and the film’s depiction of the suffering war brings to ordinary people—especially women—rises above the sentimental at times.” But “beneath its cinematic sheen, has its soul in the small screen.”
The Playlist‘s Oliver Lyttelton finds Wellington to be “somewhat turgid, and hardly exceptional. But it’s also handsome, generally well acted when the performers stick to their first language, and a detailed and smart look at a point in history that’s likely little-known outside of Portugal.”
“It was never about making a film in the same style as Raúl Ruiz,” Domenico La Porta reminds us at Cineuropa, “but rather about being the latest in a long line of film directors to dedicate their work to the Chilean master.”
Video from Venice, where Lines of Wellington screened in Competition: The press conference and the premiere. And Wellington will be a Special Presentation in Toronto.
Update, 9/23: “The concept of Sarmiento, herself a director of nearly 20 films, shooting a panorama ‘prepared’ by Ruiz certainly tantalizes,” writes Fernando F. Croce in MUBI’s Notebook. “The stolid cinema de qualité pageant that resulted, however, turned out to be the antithesis of Ruiz’s sublimely slippery camera, a drugged elephant dragging itself across the screen, connecting dot-like characters and stopping dead in its tracks to make room for whatever star had dropped by producer Paulo Branco’s office.”
Venice and Toronto 2012: a guide to the coverage of the coverage. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow @KeyframeDaily on Twitter and/or the RSS feed. Get Keyframe Daily in your inbox by signing in at fandor.com/daily.