Drifting at a slow pace CityRail commuters would be accustomed to, Bille August’s Night Train To Lisbon possesses a vanilla charm that is unlikely to raise your pulse rate.
The historical period drama meets love-triangle ‘thriller’ is an adaptation of the international best-selling novel of the same name by Pascal Mercier and despite August’s best attempts to inject contemplative profundity, Mercier’s philosophical meanderings whimper away in the picturesque backdrops of Switzerland and Portugal.
In an ensemble cast boasting some of Europe’s finest actors, Jeremy Irons stars as Raimund Gregorius, a placid classics teacher in a Swiss high school whose life is changed when he saves a young woman from jumping off a bridge. After she disappears and leaves her coat filled with a book by a mysterious writer named Amadeu de Prado and a ticket for the night train to Lisbon, Raimund impulsively boards the train and starts gradually unravelling the life story of the novel’s author.
The camera navigates through the streets of Lisbon, giving a tourist-like tour resplendent with softly-lit shots of cobbled laneways and Portugese architecture. The cinematography is easy on the eye, particularly during the film’s flashbacks to Portugal’s period of political turmoil during which Irons’ character becomes increasingly intrigued in the life of Amadeu (the wide-eyed Jack Huston) who tragically dies on the day Portugese dictator Antonio Salazar was deposed in 1974.
The protagonist starts with Amadeu’s conceited sister, Adriana (Charlotte Rampling) who still lives in the family home. Connecting the dots between the key people in Amadeu’s life, Raimund also finds a love interest, but the true driver of the film lies in the flashback vignettes of Amadeu’s youth as a magistrate’s son, and then his time as a passionate idealist and doctor.
One aspects of August’s slow-paced film that may annoy or engage you is Raimund’s voiceover insights which give a whole new meaning to Philosophy 101: “We live here and now everything before and in other places past, mostly forgotten.” And yet, despite these banalities, the story moves seamlessly with decent performances from the Euro-star cast (the Portugese accents are a treat, particularly Bruno Ganz as a wheezing, alcoholic pharmacist).
For those with no invested interested in the novel, the film is just like the protagonist: inherently dull, lacking in imagination and yet efficient; but if you’re in the mood for some Old World escapism then this might be a treat.
BY LARRY LAI
Night Train To Lisbon is in cinemas now.