There’s much to enjoy in Viggo Mortenssen’s (Lord of the Rings, Hildago) most taciturn performance as rogue soldier-turned-mercenary ‘Captain’ Alatriste, dragging his world-weary soul through the Spanish Imperial Wars of the 17th century: just don’t expect a lavish swashbuckling adventure.
At over at $30 million, Alatriste was the most expensive Spanish feature film ever, drenched in historical accuracy, rendered on screen in a series of painterly tableaux, dripping with Catholic and state intrigue, but never quite setting the screen alight.
From Flanders, to Breda, to Rocroi, Alatriste trades his sword and his honour through the wars of a decaying Empire for a weak, ginger Hapsburg King and treads indelicately between the Inquisition and the nobility, all the while failing to protect friends and his adopted son from their own follies.
This wholly sub-titled Spanish historical drama is based on the five-volume historical novel series by Arturo Perez-Reverte, but the script is baggy, episodic and feels even longer than it’s two and a half hour running time. The books are somewhere between Zorro, The Three Musketeers and Sharpe, yet Perez-Reverte’s allegedly quick, popular entertainment prose has been turned into this ponderous processional. Scenes are langorous and laden with meaningful pauses which drag down the visceral battles and duels which break out infrequently.
Mumbling as always, but this time in impeccable Spanish (long resident as a youth in South America), Renaissance man Mortenssen is the main draw of this stilted and claustrophobic drama; his long, pallid features drawn with the fatalism of an in-virtuous man who knows he’s heading for an inglorious end, either on a foreign battlefield or in a dark alley.
The love of his life is the beautiful María de Castro (Ariadna Gil), naturally the most famous stage actress in Spain. Over the course of twenty-odd years, Alatriste works for and makes enemies of the Inquisition, various Grandees and Spain’s own Richlieu-figure, Count-Duke Olivares.
And so the vagabond Alatriste drifts across a decaying empire, between the rich aristocracy and the downtrodden poor; from rundown taverns to exquisite palaces; ill-judged military expeditions to ill-tempered back-street duels.
As a European art movie, it is splendid and there are fine performances from a cast of care-worn characters, no heroes, no villains, just survivors. Certainly there’s more substance here than in Dumas and Richard Lester’s touch-stone The Three Musketeers (1974), but consider this: I watched half, stopped and didn’t watch the other half for two months. Or was it three? It didn’t exactly enthrall me, and as you’ll see from the movie review here, I’ll sit through all sorts just from passing interest.
Perhaps it’s Mortenssen, whose sheer worthiness in every role reduces his productions to stultifying dullness? Alatriste is wearisome whereas the easily-mocked The Borgias and even the Sharpe TV series power along through just this kind of material. Perhaps that’s the solution – treat is as a mini-series and watch forty-minute chunks? You may find it to be a fine piece of TV. RC
Captain Alatriste – the Spanish Musketeer (2006)
Director: Agustín Díaz Yanes
Writer: Agustín Díaz Yanes (screenplay) from Arturo Pérez-Reverte (novels)
Running time: 2 hr. 27 min.
Genre: Historical, Drama
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Elena Anaya, Unax Ugalde, Eduard Fernández, Eduardo Norriega, Ariadna Gil, Juan Echanove, Javier Cámara, Antonio Dechent, Blanca Portillo, Francesc Garrido, Pilar López de Ayala,
Related: Review – The Borgias Season 1