Night Train to Lisbon
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 8th December 2013
Pascal Mercier’s popular novel “Night Train to Lisbon” has been dramatised into an all-star, European art-house film which is guaranteed to draw the crowds but suffers a little from a ponderous on-screen retelling.
A lonesome professor foils a suicide and in so doing encounters a mystery that he will do everything to unravel. Via the pockets of a stranger’s coat, he steps into a whole new world of revolution and passion from decades earlier, which takes him a journey of mistrustful encounters and family secrets.
It’ll be a sad day when we no longer hear Jeremy Irons’ rich, languid tones, and Irons is perfect as the slightly dishevelled academic, Raimund Gregorius, who abandons normal life to pursue an historical adventure across the continent. The tale starts off like a delightful, old-school mystery set in contemporary, graffiti-daubed reality, but the narrative structure soon becomes plodding as it resorts to anecdote – backstory – anecdote – flashback. The novel presumably worked, but as a film it needs rather more of a hook as to why the audience should care for the characters Gregorius uncovers, and the rolling out of Tom Courtenay (Quartet), Lena Olin (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) and a drawn-faced Charlotte Rampling (again) serves to bedazzle us with star-spotting rather than draw us into the story.
It is at least nicely dramatised, and the European locations are exotic even when the story calls for harsh and ugly. The flashback cast includes the charming Melanie Laurent and young up-and-comer Jack Huston (from the Huston family dynasty) impresses as the young revolutionary, Amadeu.
However, Danish director Bille August charted similar adaptation territory with the immensely popular Smilla’s Feeling for Snow which disappointingly didn’t quite hit the jackpot. Here too, Night Train to Lisbon simply feels like a mildly interesting rendering of a not massively interesting story.