Night Train to Lisbon

December 7, 2013
Jeremy Irons in 'Night Train To Lisbon'.
Jeremy Irons in 'Night Train To Lisbon'.

In Jack Cardiff’s Girl on a Motorcycle (1968), which marries pretension and sexploitation in a way that only the 1960s could conceive, Marianne Faithfull abandons her boring schoolteacher husband and roars off to Switzerland on a big Harley-Davidson for a romantic assignation with Alain Delon. Most girls might think this sounds like a perfectly logical move, but spare a thought for the poor husband – one Raymond Null (played, bizarrely, by an actor named Roger Mutton).

Many years later we may finally have discovered what happened to Raymond. He seems to be teaching at a school in Bern, under the name “Raimund Gregorious”. Night Train to Lisbon, by Danish director, Bille August, tells us how Raimund finally breaks free of his narrow, bloodless drudgery, embarking on a spontaneous trip to Portugal to discover a different kind of life. If he proceeds by means of reading and research rather than action, we have to accept Raimund was never cut out to be a Hollywood hero.

Night Train to Lisbon is based on a best-selling novel by Swiss author, Pascal Mercier, and the screenplay is strangled by its attempts to do justice to the philosophising that obviously plays a large role in the book. It leaves one to ponder the wisdom of adapting such a story when many of the greatest movies have been drawn from short stories or pulp fiction.

Jeremy Irons in the lead role heads an impressive line-up of Euro-stars, including Mélanie Laurent, Martina Gedeck, Charlotte Rampling, Bruno Ganz, Christopher Lee and Tom Courtenay. Every one of these established actors, except Irons, is supposed to be Portugeuse – which is a terrible reflection on the local talent pool. Surely they could have found a few Portugeuse actors for these parts, even if everyone is speaking English.

The story is a variation on that classic injunction: “You must change your life!” The poet, Rilke, felt one came to this realisation through the contemplation of a work of art. Raimund gets there via a book and a train trip.

We begin with our hero undertaking a leisurely breakfast and a spot of chess in his book-lined appartent in Bern. On the way to work his orderly routine is upset when he sees a young woman about to jump off a bridge. He crash tackles her and brings her along to his class, but she soon slips away, leaving a red overcoat.

Raimund grabs the coat, exits the class, and sets out in pursuit. In the pocket he finds a book and a train ticket to Lisbon, leaving in fifteen minutes. As he peruses the book – a collection of philosophical musings called The Goldsmith of Words, by one Amadeu De Prado, Raimund becomes entranced. He hops on the train and heads to Lisbon in search of the mysterious girl and the author of the book.

Although Amadeu turns out to be dead, the rest of the movie finds Raimund piecing together the story of the author’s life which was lived under the Salazar dictatorship. He meets Amadeu’s old friends and colleagues who help him reconstruct a picture of those dark days. Assisted by Mariana, a sympathetic optometrist, (Gedeck), he gradually attains a clearer picture of a time when people lived tense, exciting lives, quite unlike his own dreary existence.

August tells the story in a series of skilful alternations between the past and present. We segue seamlessly from the story of handsome, youthful Amadeu (Jack Huston), to that of his middle-aged Swiss admirer, but the slickness of the director’s technique is at odds with the script. Whether we are in the past or the present, the dialogue remains consistently stilted and speechifying. Not least irritating are the extracts from Amadeu’s book, which are presented as snippets of bottomless profundity, although it’s hard to share Raimund’s enthusiasm.

Raimund tells Mariana that his ex-wife left him because he was boring. As this is a movie, not real life, she doesn’t turn around and bolt. “You’re not boring,” she reassures him. “Oh yes you are,” thinks the viewer.

Night Train to Lisbon
Germany/Switzerland/Portugal, rated M
111 Mins
Directed by Bille August; written by Greg Latter & Ulrich Herrmann, from a novel by Pascal Mercier; starring Jeremy Irons, Mélanie Laurent, Martina Gedeck, Jack Huston, Tom Courtenay, August Diehl, Bruno Ganz, Charlotte Rampling, Christopher Lee

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 7 December, 2013.