Night Train to Lisbon – Billie August paints us a rather empty Pascal Mercier. (Film Review)

Raimund Gregorius (Jeremy Irons) is a Swiss professor of ancient languages who happens upon a woman on the brink of suicide as he is meandering to work one day in the rain. He cries out to stop her, and when he is successful, acts a  little like the dog surprised it caught the car. Gregorius is a man at the top of his profession who lives his life by route, trapped in a strange kind of introspection as if he is both anchored and adrift together. He is immediately recognisable, as we all have something of the desperately seeking stasis inside of us that seems to breed more of itself, and it is his character that was part of the great success of the 2004 novel ‘Nachtzug nach Lissabon’ (‘Night Train To Lisbon’) written by Pascal Mercier, the very interesting philosopher of time. Now Billie August brings Gregorius to life through Jeremy Irons in the film adaptation of the novel. 


When the woman (Sarah Spale-Buhlmann) decides not to jump at Gregorius’ request, he rather strangely continues on his life as if nothing had happened, only now she’s following him like a charge, as if he is somehow responsible for her.  He goes directly to the class he is about to teach, and she follows, standing in the corner of the classroom, dripping wet. She removes her raincoat, takes a seat, finally wonders what the hell she is doing there, and leaves. When Gregorius examines the pockets of her raincoat for some sign of who the mystery woman might be, he finds a small book and is immediately compelled to read it. This is where the story really starts, as the book is written by Amadeu do Prado (Jack Huston) a man who fought in the Portuguese resistance against the Salazar dictatorship. As Gregorius examines the book, a piece of paper flies out and upon examination it is a ticket to Lisbon for a train that leaves fifteen minutes from when he found it. Dramatically, he decides to take the ticket and go to Lisbon.


It is these turns of whimsy that drove the book, the themes of night trains, insomnia, dream filled sleep, confusion about one’s purpose that made Gregorius so accessible and relatable. Billie August seems to be trying to implant these themes in the film version, with the greatest joy in the film coming from twists and turns, serendipitous coincidences, chaotic choices and the overall strangeness of life, giving the film a strangely quirky and yet believable air. This does seem to backfire, however, because while we completely believe that the oddities that befall Gregorius could happen, the events that are not imbued with whimsy become so deadpan and lifeless that the film loses any hope of the spark that holds interest. It’s a strangely dull film, with lumpy (and at times silly) dialogue infusing a meandering and slow narrative. The pacing is all off here, and even though the story is gripping enough to “page-turn” us through the film, the viewer finds themselves forced to slow down when so much seems to be happening. The biggest twist of all ends up being the Raimund Gregorius of the book to whom ever reader related as if he were an everyman, has become deathly dull to the point that he can make the most exciting story excruciatingly boring.


Night Train to Lisbon becomes a living cliché of why we should “show not tell” as the book is virtually read by Raimund till every drop of audience independent thought is stamped out. Eventually Raimund will seek out the history of Armadeu, and flashbacks take us through his story as detailed in the book. Gregorius travels around connecting the dots, which include appearances by a wonderful cast including Charlotte Rampling as Adriana do Prado, Christopher Lee as a priest who used to be Armadeu’s teacher, Mariana Gedeck as the optomitrist who provides a crucial missing link and Tom Courtenay as her Uncle João Eça,  Bruno Ganz and finally Lena Olin as former revolutionaries. The cast do their best with the material, but directional additives such as Charlotte Rampling perpetually clutching at her all-too-high neck scarf are laboured give-aways that remove one of the most intriguing aspects of the book – no spoilers. Sometimes the book would be criticised for its lack of information, but that was by thriller genre writers and ‘Night Train to Lisbon’ is meant to be a philosophical text. August can’t seem to make up his mind here – he dwells over phrases and has Jeremy Iron’s potter aimlessly as if it were philosophical, and yet fills screen shots with little pointers as if he were making a noir thriller, and instead of uniting the two, it eliminates what is interesting about each.


There is enough in the solid production team, good period costuming and elegant camera work when capturing the beautiful cities the story moves through to prevent the film from being an all out dud, and the historical recreations are certainly the most interesting aspect of the film, but Night Train to Lisbon feels a lot like another one of those terribly wasted opportunities to do something exciting with a director and cast who can pull it off, that just didn’t come together.