It was considered a talky and drawn out bore by a handful of critics, but I found Bille August’s 2013 drama “Night Train to Lisbon” to be a soothing and almost cathartic film despite its occasional lapses. It’s a swirl of mystery, romance, self-examination, and character study that does at times trip over itself and its subtle but clumsy preachiness. But ultimately the film dives into themes and reflections that I found fulfilling.
The film is based on Pascal Mercier’s 2004 novel about a man lost in his loneliness and plagued by feelings of unfulfillment and unimportance. The great Jeremy Irons plays Raimund Gregorius, a language professor at a college in Bern, Switzerland. The film’s opening scene tells us scores about its main character. We see Raimund in a meager, dimly lit apartment. The walls are covered with books portraying what almost seems like an obsession. Raimund stirs around but there’s no one else there. No voices. No vibrancy. Nothing lively or colorful. It’s a portrayal of his loneliness.
Later that rainy morning, while walking to school, he comes across a young woman standing on a bridge about to commit suicide. He’s able to grab her before she jumps and then takes her to his classroom to gather her thoughts. As he begins teaching his class she wanders off leaving behind her raincoat with a book in the pocket. Raimund immediately sets off to find the mysterious young woman using the book as a guide which leads him to Lisbon, Portugal.
The story quickly moves away from Raimund’s search for the young woman and to his fascination with the book. It was written by a man named Amadeu do Prado. Raimund is mesmerized by the life depicted in the memoirs and he ventures across Lisbon putting the story together through the people who knew Amadeu. Along this personal journey, Raimund finds some people who are eager to help him. He also finds some who are reluctant to revisit the painful and tumultuous past they shared with Amadeu.
Through Raimund’s conversations with people we get flashbacks to Amadeu (portrayed by Jack Huston) and his life. We see his difficult childhood and his complicated relationship with his family. We witness his venture into a left-wing resistance movement that went against the Salazar administration. We see scarred friendships and fragile romances. It’s a truly compelling life story even though it sputters at times and its historical account is clearly told from a strict and persuaded point of view. This occasionally strips the film of its genuineness and makes it the film a bit like a lecture.
While I found Amadeu’s unfolding story interesting, it was Raimund who kept me enthralled in the movie. With every peeled back layer of Amadeu’s past Raimund realizes how unfulfilling his own life is. Through the book he tries to experience the life that he has never had. Jeremy Irons navigates this journey with such temperate and emotional precision. It’s not a loud or showy performance. Instead he uses a more reserved approach which serves the character and his state brilliantly. I truly felt for Raimund and completely bought into his plight.
These dual stories are also helped by a fascinating assortment of wonderful actors and actresses. There are so many rich supporting performances from Huston, French actress Mélanie Laurent (a favorite of mine), Charlotte Rampling, Christopher Lee, Martina Gedeck, Auguest Diehl, Bruno Ganz, Tom Courtenay, and several others. Each have their specific role in Raimund’s journey and Amadeu’s story and the strength of the acting brings both vividly to life.
There is also plenty of beautiful scenery, wonderful locations, and interesting camera work to talk about, but this really comes down to the story and your ability to latch onto it. I had no problem with this mainly because of the film’s centerpiece Jeremy Irons and the story he tells. There is the occasional rough patch and a few hints of odd one-sided lecturing. There is also an intriguing human drama that sucked me in and had me genuinely caring about the characters. That’s an essential piece of any good drama and “Night Train to Lisbon” has it.