You can't catch lightning in a bottle twice except for some freak stroke of luck - producer Paulo Branco might have been going for it when, after the worldwide acclaim of Raúl Ruiz's Mysteries of Lisbon, he announced the Chilean director would take over a previous project from the same writer, Carlos Saboga, also set in early 19th-century Portugal, dealing with the late days of the third French invasion of the country and the retreat of the Anglo-Portuguese allied troops to the Torres Vedras fortifications known as the "lines of Wellington." Sadly, Mr. Ruiz died during pre-production, and Valeria Sarmiento, his wife and regular film editor and a director in her own right, took over the project, retaining the script, cast and crew already decided on, plus the original proviso that - as Mysteries of Lisbon - it would exist both as a feature film and a longer TV version.

     Linhas de Wellington's lineage with Mysteries of Lisbon is thus unmistakeable: the same mosaic structure of interconnected personal stories set against a momentous historical event. But, unlike the previous film (an adaptation of Camilo Castelo Branco's 19th century novel), this is an original script by a writer with good work to his credit that is left somewhat hanging by its unambitious handling. Ms. Sarmiento does not have the same knack as her late husband to work elaborate narrative framings; her film is more classically and conventionally structured, which wouldn't be much of a problem if the project didn't so openly call for the regular dreamy, free-form stylings Mr. Ruiz liked to apply to this sort of historical projects. To her credit, Ms. Sarmiento does not try to make herself into an ersatz Ruiz, but neither does she manage to instil much of a personality in the finished film.

     There are many individual elements that strike the viewer - Ms. Sarmiento's adroit use of dolly work, her almost constant use of smooth gliding cameras to catch the dynamics of conversations and moments, the uniformly excellent performances of the principal cast. But there is a sense the film never really comes together as a whole, ending up as a series of atomized, independent stories set around a central event, unleashing an episodic dimension that may be better suited to television than cinema (something we'll have to wait for the small-screen cut, titled Linhas de Torres Vedras, to ascertain). None of this is helped by the sprawling and distracting all-star cast, some of which are positively wasted in blink and you'll miss it cameos such as Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Chiara Mastroianni and Michel Piccoli, that take away from the main narrative thrust and seem to be there just for the sake of it (though production puts it as homages to the well-esteemed director, to whom the film is dedicated).

     There is much to admire in this unwieldy but not entirely unpleasant film, but it's a clear case of a project that aims for ambitions it is clearly unable to fulfill. Lightning has definitely not been caught in the bottle twice.

Cast: Miguel Borges, João Luís Arrais, Melvil Poupaud, Mathieu Amalric, Nuno Lopes, Afonso Pimentel, Marcello Urgeghe, Gonçalo Waddington, Jemima West, Soraia Chaves, John Malkovich, Vincent Perez, Carloto Cotta, Marisa Paredes, Victória Guerra, Filipe Vargas, Adriano Luz, Albano Jerónimo, Joana de Verona, Manuel Wiborg, Elsa Zylberstein, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Michel Piccoli, Chiara Mastroianni, Malik Zidi, Maria João Bastos, Paulo Pires

Director: Valeria Sarmiento
Screenplay: Carlos Saboga
Cinematography: André Szankowski (colour, processing by Light Film and Éclair Group, Panavision widescreen)
Music: Jorge Arriagada
Art direction and costumes: Isabel Branco
Editors: Ms. Sarmiento, Luca Alverdi
Producer: Paulo Branco (Alfama Films Production, France 3 Cinéma)
France/Portugal, 2012, 152 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Medeia Monumental 4 (Lisbon), September 15th 2012

Linhas de Wellington - Trailer Oficial (Legendado em Português) from Cosmopolis on Vimeo.


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