Raimund Gregorius (Irons) is a stuffy Swiss schoolteacher (whose loneliness and intellectualism are leadenly established by an early scene of him playing chess against himself) who prevents a narratively unnecessary young woman from committing suicide on his way to work one day. She flees, but in the pocket of the coat she leaves, Gregorius finds a book written by Amadeu de Prado, a Portuguese doctor during the era of Salazar's right-wing dictatorship. He is entranced by the philosophy of de Prado's writings, and when a ticket for the titular night train falls from the book's pages, Gregorius finds himself doing the first spontaneous thing he's done in a very long time, and climbing aboard. Once in Lisbon he tracks down the de Prado home, meets de Prado's sister (Rampling) only later to discover that Amadeu is dead, though his sister refers to him as if alive.
Through a string of unconvincing contrivances involving the local optician he visits (Martina Gedeck), who just so happens to have an uncle who was central to the story he's so interested in, Gregorius begins to piece together Amadeu's tale – one that we see unfold progressively in flashback. That story of love, betrayal and revolutionary politics is actually much more interesting than the modern-day component, and so the players there – Huston as Amadeu, Laurent as the revolutionary Estefania whose photographic memory makes her a valuable asset to the cause, August Diehl as the friend and third point in the love triangle – all fare a little better than their older counterparts.
The main issue with the contemporary story is how ploddingly told it is. Gregorius seems forever pinging back and forth between places he's already been to talk to people he's already met, to get one tiny further scrap of the historical story. Perhaps this is a faithful reflection of how things occur in the novel, but really, transposed to film it's just a lot of Jeremy Irons standing on doorsteps and walking down hallways, to ask something he easily could have asked the last time he was here. And seeing as all he's really doing is talking to people and occasionally quoting from the book he has found so inspiring, these sections can feel unnecessarily verbose, with, on occasion, one actor speaking his lines almost before the other has finished, as though they know they've got a lot to get through. Couple this with the clashing accents, sometimes from people playing the same character at different times in their lives (Lena Olin is the older Mélanie Laurent; Bruno Ganz is the older August Diehl, etc.), and the overtly philosophical or political nature of what they are saying, and the dialogue can feel very stilted indeed.
But there are pleasures and small surprises. Huston, a favorite of ours for his brilliant turn as Richard Harrow in "Boardwalk Empire," impresses here even with two eyes: his Amadeu is an appropriately romantic hero, just the right balance of tortured idealist, deep thinker, revolutionary and fool in love. Laurent is given less to do, but makes the most of her truncated screen time, while cameos from the likes of Bruno Ganz and Christopher Lee do perk things up if only because we're just so genuinely fond of other performances these men have given.
Mostly though, it's a shame the lion's share of the screen time (or what certainly feels like it) is given to Gregorius' modern-day story. Irons is a watchable actor but here his character has an arc of such minute change (from repressed guy in ugly glasses to ever so slightly less repressed guy in cooler glasses), that it's hard to avoid a massive "oh who cares" during the painfully predictable final scene. And these problems are compounded by the fact that the book Gregorius finds so life-changing is, judging from the excerpts we're given, full of aphorisms that are maybe about the level of a "Little Book of Philosophical Doodads" that we might leave in the bathroom. Perhaps the writings themselves should have been left a mystery to the audience. Perhaps the Gregorius storyline could have been left out altogether, or simply used to bookend. Perhaps Irons could have been given a sassy robot sidekick. Who knows how many ways there could have been to make this film a little more colorful, a little more lively and surprising.