Thursday, August 08, 2013

Lines of Wellington

I was drawn to Lines of Wellington as a consequence of reading Bernard Cornwell's novel "Sharpe's Escape" over the summer. Both the film and the book follow the same period of time in 1810, the Anglo-Portuguese two week retreat after the Battle of Bussaco to the Lines of Torres Vedras north of Lisbon. This is a small episode during the third French invasion of Portugal, itself a small part of the 1807–1814 Peninsular War, which was one of the overlapping Napoleonic Wars between 1803 and 1815. While Cornwell has written a number of novels about the Peninsular War, it is not so clear why director Valeria Sarmiento (or her late husband Raúl Ruiz) would be interested in this little bit of history.

Unusually Lines of Wellington has many intersecting and interlacing story lines, characters from one story appear in the background of others (which for some of the stories is a significant factor). It is hard to see any story or character as being more important than any other. Wellington tried to implement a scorched earth policy during the retreat, taking as much of the civilian population with him, including the population of Coimbra. All characters and their stories all seem small compared to larger event of the armies and the mass of civilians on the move. By concentrating on lots of little things the director gives us an impression of the scale of the event.

Some characters are over taken by events and others try to take advantage of them. One man hunts for his wife, another loots the dead and sells what he finds, the first man's wife has taken advantage of the chaos to find another man. Wellington (John Malkovich at his arrogant best) appears completely detached from the events around him and more worried about commissioning a painting than fighting. A Swiss merchant tries to ingratiate himself to Marshall Masséna while his wife and her sister (Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Huppert) undercut his brown nosing. A recurring theme in the film is of women taking advantage of the situation.

If any character holds the film together it is Sargento Francisco Xavier, a Portuguese rifeman who interacts with many of the other characters during the retreat and looks after and later woos the pretty widow of an Irish soldier from his regiment. The overall sentiment of the film is one of tragedy tinged with hope. The final victorious scene is almost an anticlimax. While the idea of having no story line more important than any other is an interesting idea, it does make it difficult to engage with the story. I was left with the impression of watching some well acted fragments with high production values, signifying not very much.

The title refers to the defences north of Lisbon that Wellington had ordered the year before in anticipation of the French invasion along with devastation of much of the countryside north of Lisbon. These defences took the French by surprise. A consequence of the the scorched earth policy was that up to 2% of the Portuguese population died in the winter of 1811-2. Note that Arthur Wellesley didn't become Duke of Wellington until 1814, though he had been created Viscount Wellington in 1809.

Ian's rating 2.5/5

No comments:

Post a Comment