Dull but never dreary, Lines of Wellington was one of the projects in Raúl Ruiz’s pipeline before he passed away last year. The director is his widow, Valeria Sarmiento, a respected, if not internationally known, filmmaker in her own right. You can’t help but compare this to A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which began life in Stanley Kubrick’s hands, but was made stem to stern by another director following his death. But while A.I. is now regarded as one of the key films of its era, the serendipitous overlap of two distinctive yet dissimilar visionaries, Lines of Wellington was born under no such lucky sign. As with Spielberg’s film, the influence of the deceased artist is unmistakable, but his handiwork is absent. It looks like we’re in Ruiz territory, with its leaf-on-the-wind approach to collating multiple storylines, and there’s at least the insinuation that each thread is rife with Ruizian coincidence, but Sarmiento’s direction is no more distinguished than if this was a Game of Thrones episode. Less Spielberg, more Bruce Beresford.
The story—saga format, spanning an untold number of months or years—concerns a major passage in the Peninsular War between France, Spain, and Portugal, wherein the English Duke of Wellington ordered a series of massive barricades to defend Lisbon from seizure by the French invaders. The Duke, played by John Malkovich, appears in a few scenes only, mostly to express petulant dissatisfaction at the painter he’s commissioned for his portrait. The majority of the story concerns the soldiers in the field, the women who are affected (and sometimes damaged irreparably) by the ongoing strife, and a massive wave of refugees, routed by the French army. Little stories, large, of course, in the eyes of their protagonists and witnesses, dot the landscape. Common ground with the largely peacetime Mysteries of Lisbon includes a key player whose perceptions are colored by a traumatic head injury, and the way its long, long lines of narrative and sub-narrative are delineated in anecdotal parcels.
It’s an odd experience, a Ruiz film (if it deserves to be called that) devoid of dreamy mystery, reduced to a mere handsome historical epic, albeit capably mounted by Portuguese producer extraordinaire Paulo Branco. Every component of Lines of Wellington appears to have been ordered from a wholesale catalog dealing in epic movies. Frames are composed according to the manual, and there’s just the right musical accompaniment for scenes of tragedy or bawdy comedy, as well as a predictable array of guest stars.
Granted, such things can be pleasurable on their own: The cast is top-heavy with lovely ladies (Soraia Chaves, Victória Guerra, Jemima West), and the widescreen photography is often soothing in its tendency toward handsome backlighting and languid tracking shots. This all could have gone very, very wrong, but Lines of Wellington’s eye-filling cinematography and production values are enough to waft the viewer across 151 relatively pain-free minutes. Also contributing to the film’s soothing balm is Carlos Saboga’s script. Saboga adapted Mysteries of Lisbon for Ruiz, and it seems he has a knack for keeping the thing moving at a reasonable clip, without making it seem like it’s in an all-fired hurry.