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Review: Old-Fashioned, Deeply Unadventurous 'Night Train To Lisbon' Starring Jeremy Irons, Melanie Laurent & More

Reviews
by Jessica Kiang
December 7, 2013 11:04 AM
2 Comments
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Night Train to Lisbon Irons

In the very finest tradition of Euro-pudding, director Bille August's "Night Train To Lisbon" adapts an international bestselling book, takes place against the picturesque backdrop of a European capital, is half-told in flashback through a turbulent and dramatic period of history, and stacks the cast with notable European thesps. These include: Jeremy Irons, Jack Huston, Charlotte Rampling, Christopher Lee, Tom Courtenay representing the U.K.; from Germany, Martina Gedeck and August Diehl; Bruno Ganz of Switzerland; Lena Olin of Sweden; and Mélanie Laurent from France. However, bar Irons, this Babel tower of actors all play Portuguese nationals, and so while the films is told through English, they all speak with Portuguese accents. Irons, however, plays Swiss, which obviously means he employs his usual mellifluous British tones. A little silly though all this is, it's not actually particularly injurious to our understanding of the story, but it does give you an idea of the messiness and, well, inefficiency of the approach.

Night Train To Lisbon

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.

Night Train To Lisbon

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.

Night Train To Lisbon

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.

As it is, when at one point Gregorius states that he thinks his wife left him because she found him "boring," we have to agree with her, despite the fact we're presumably supposed to see his dullness as evidence of deep sensitivity or fine intellectualism or something. No, Gregorius' tamped-down, buttoned-up professor is so dry that the decision to return to him time and time again just when things are hotting up in the historical story seems an almost perversely deliberate choice by August to turn us away from anything that might in the slightest raise the pulse. What we're left with is bloodless, far too genteel, and perfectly content to continually tell where a little showing would be nice; "Night Train to Lisbon" ends up a deeply unadventurous adventure story. [C]

This is a reprint of our review from the 2013 Berlin Film Festival.

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2 Comments

  • Thamus | June 15, 2014 6:42 AMReply

    Surprise, surprise. Another smart-ass American review mocking the Euro-cinema style of a person following some impulse or unraveling some historical or romantic past events before it's too late, all set in a beautiful European city with a lovely harbour and hilly cobbled streets - how awful. I suppose a few car chases, SWAT team raids (lets go! let's go!) and explosions would have woken up the reviewer, who is obviously too young to empathize with an aging professor who feels he may have missed out on some spice in his life and finally does something adventurous.
    This reviewer would have called Death in Venice "like, bo-o-oring" and missed the point. By contrast, Robert Moyle of the Herald Sun remarked not only how engaging is Night Train to Lisbon, but how easy it is to identify with Gregorius.
    However, in this review, "a string of unconvincing contrivances" about how Gregorius meets those involved is just plain wrong: we all know how life often throws up amazing coincidences in support of ventures. In the closed small world of resistance in a small city, neither is it surprising that younger people have uncles and other aged relatives who were linked in the past. And no, he couldn't have asked all the right questions in one visit – he kept finding new pieces of information that raised more questions to be asked. Maybe he should have Googled them?
    I find it clever that the true central character – the poet-doctor Amadeu, as well as his possessive sister and the circle of resistance workers – are portrayed just off center, time past giving way to time present, as in real life.
    A catalyst is a substance that sparks chemical reactions while itself remaining unchanged: this is Gregorius, a random-event catalyst that spurs three intimate friends who lived in a brutal dictatorship to finally discover what had happened to each other. The catalyst Gregorius churns up and resolves the key experience of their lives while leaving us wryly wondering if he will indeed remain an unchanged, doomed, Professor William Stoner.
    The reviewer seems unaware that Billie August is known for daring literary adaptations like 'Les Miserables', 'Smilla's Sense of Snow', 'House of the Spirits' and 'Jerusalem'. So it's scarcely surprising that Night Train to Lisbon spends some time contemplating, you know, "ideas" – in Gregorious's philosophical self-explorations and de Prado's journal.
    Incidentally, regarding the sneering reference to "aphorisms that are maybe about the level of a Little Book of Philosophical Doodads," surely the reviewer is referring to the Disneyfied, sanitized and dollarized "self-help" junk versions of ancient philosophical musings (Marcus Aurelius). The epigraphs Gregorious actually ponders come from Michel de Montaigne, Essais, Fernando Pessoa, and other philosophical heavyweights. Is there something un-modern, or just un-American, about self-reflective consideration of night journeys, insomnia, dreams, lost love, of being stuck in a rut yet adrift at the same time? Is a man to be condemned for still being confused about life's purpose after a life of study and teaching? Despite the sneers, August still tries to ask "who we are, how do we control our experience of life, and how fragile is that construction." If the reviewer has some snappy answers (dooh dahs?) for these questions, do tell, and we can be done at last with philosophy and literary films.
    I agree 'Night Train to Lisbon' could have been edited differently (but I'm not a movie editor) by telling the story of the resistance in one continuous run and then move to the modern aftermath and the loose ends and failed affairs. There should be some new law that allows movie makers only one, max two, flashbacks per film, or be sentenced to direct a new Rocky movie every year for five years.

  • joao | May 16, 2014 2:50 PMReply

    I saw the movie and i was born and raised in Lisbon during the late 40s,50s,and 60s. My father was a carpenter. And in those years i lived there i never saw an agent of the PIDE, there was no organized "resistance", except for the communist party. The pide permeated society, there was no room for any resistance. The few that did oppose ended up in a prison in Africa or Forte Rei D. Luís political prison; there were no schools for the workers as a tool to organize them. Salazar had a full lid on any kind of opposition. Spies everywhere. My father a carpenter, a shipwright, on May day would have to go to work or we would receive a visit from the police to see if in fact he was sick.
    So, the whole resistance thing is bogus, it is the story of a quadritelateral love affair, if you count the fact the the femme fatale after having two guys fawn over her now invites the third and last, the professor who started the quest.

    The movie as a whole i thought stupid and rather shallow with so much convolution trying to pass it as a great intellectual piece of writing. So, some guy runs into someone trying to kill herself saves her then she leaves, but leaves with him her book and the train ticket to Lisbon. He takes off after her and of course she is not on the station, for why would she if she had lost her ticket? But he does not see her and instead gets so obsessed by the deep thoughts of the book ,in portuguese, and the teacher decides to go to Lisbon by train. The rest of the story is just a continual farse from one scene to another. Rather mediocre. i thought.

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