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Intrigue, love and loyalty: a big-budget portrait of a 17th century Spanish mercenary
It's big-budget, it boasts extras by the planeload, and a broad historical panorama: it's all about intrigue, loyalty, love, and loads of a real man doing what a real man's gotta do. This is the Spanish film industry's most serious attempt yet to break into the mainstream international market, and Viggo Mortensen's brooding, laconic Alatriste makes a convincing bid for the job. A heroic figure despite himself, Alatriste is the poor bloody footsoldier whose unquestioning courage provided the flesh and blood foundations of the Siglo de Oro, the golden age of the early 17th Century when the Spanish crown laid claim to half of western Europe.
In scuffed boots and floppy fedora, Mortensen cuts an attractive figure in an amoral, down-at-heel sort of way: women are prepared to leave their husbands for him, men fight for the privilege of dying at his side. We are led, or perhaps bullied, on an epic sweep through the muck and bullets of Spain's military meddling in its neighbours' affairs, seen through the jaundiced eyes of Alatriste and his fellow hired hands. Death is a constant presence; if you're not torn apart by a cannonball on the battlefield, or knifed in a dark alley, it may well come for you in the shape of the Inquisition and in which case, you might be better off cutting your own throat.
We cut frantically and frequently back to the Spanish court, where the grandees plot and connive, and we just know that someone inconvenient is about to get dispatched to the colonies at the very least. Here, Alatriste's glint-eyed soldier's determination gives way to the quizzical gaze of a hard man out of his depth, as matters of State are signed and sealed on oaken desks. Watch your back -- you get the impression that the most blood-sodden battlefield is a far safer place to be.
The film covers a massive swathe of turbulent European history, some three decades of a long Spanish Catholic struggle against the Protestant heretics of the Low Countries. And this, perhaps, is the film's greatest flaw the screenplay is a pull-together of some of the most dramatic episodes from a clutch of Arturo Pérez-Reverte's Captain Alatriste books, and the joins show badly. Sub-plots come and go in a tangle, and the film develops its undoubted dynamism from a regular dripfeed of another bit of swashbuckling, or whispered courtly dirty deeds, rather than the convincing development of any interplay between the characters themselves. For such a valiant warrior, poor Alatriste doesn't seem to have much say in his destiny.
That said, the film looks fabulous, from the opening misty waterlogged shots off the Flanders coast, to the final crunching battle of Rocroi. Director of Photography Paco Femenia -- responsible for the similarly atmospheric Carmen and Juana la Loca -- takes his inspiration from the contemporary canvases of Velásquez to evoke an atmosphere painted in rich earthy tones; the camera conveys the glittering sterility of the Spanish court as tangibly as the dirt that Alatriste and his ever-dwindling band of chums are forced to eat so often without pay -- to enable their lordships to live in the appropriate style.
The film, at two hours and 20 minutes, rattles along well, but is too long. If only director Augustín Díaz Yanes had the faith in the attraction and bankability of his lead character to take a deep breath, and slice the action up into more manageable chunks: a trilogy, even. Why not? Everybody else seems to be doing it, and so often with inferior material to this.
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