Taking the Night Train to Lisbon

Jeremy Irons plays a professor trailing a mysterious woman in the film of Pascal Mercier’s book

On The Town | Valerie Crawford-Pfannhauser | March 2013

A red coat, an aristocrat’s journal and a train ticket serve as catalysts in the film (Photo: Concorde)

Night Train to Lisbon, directed by the Danish filmmaker Bille August, is a German-Swiss-Portuguese co-production that united him for the second time in Portugal with Jeremy Irons, having previously filmed The House of the Spirits in Lisbon and the Alentejo in 1993.

The film is adapted from the ruminative 2004 novel by Pascal Mercier (the pseudonym for Peter Bieri, a Swiss professor of analytic philosophy), an international bestseller published in more than 30 languages and widely considered one of the last decade’s most intellectually satisfying works of European fiction. (see Book Review on page 7 of this issue.)

Shot in Bern and Lisbon and surrounding areas with a powerhouse of European acting talent, Night Train to Lisbon is a beautifully crafted and inspired film and an eloquent homage to Europe, and the ultimate transcendence of humanism and ideas. The casting showcases Irons in the lead supported by Mélanie Laurent, Jack Huston, Martina Gedeck, August Diehl, Bruno Ganz, Lena Olin, Tom Courtenay, Christopher Lee and Charlotte Rampling.

Irons plays the mild-mannered, aging Classics professor Raimund Gregorius. We first encounter him in his solitary bachelor existence at home, surrounded by papers and books, playing a game of chess in which he curiously attempts to outwit himself for some added excitement, boiling the kettle and making breakfast only to find he is out of tea. He is an intellectual but none the less an everyman as he resourcefully takes a used teabag from the bin and uses it again. These opening moments poignantly evoke Gregorius’s state of mind, that he is distracted, going through the motions of a routine and predictable daily life, living in a lonely monotone limbo.

This dramatically changes one stormy morning as he walks to the university and encounters a mysterious Portuguese woman in a red coat poised to jump off a bridge. He reaches out to stop her and somehow, almost miraculously, saves her life. He brings her to his classroom, but she soon disappears leaving her coat behind. In the pocket, Gregorius finds a ticket for the night train to Lisbon and a book, A Goldsmith of Words, the journal of an enigmatic Portuguese aristocrat and doctor, Amadeu de Prado. The compelling book instantly consumes and enchants Gregorius affecting him deeply with its beautiful philosophic meditations and poetic prose that speaks to his soul and poses the very questions about everything in life that has preoccupied him for years.

"Is there a secret beneath the surface of human activity?" de Prado asks. "And if we actually live out only a portion of what’s inside us, what happens with the rest?"

Seized by a restlessness and impulsiveness that is completely out of character Gregorius abandons his classroom, shocking his students and surprising even himself. He hopes to find the woman at the train station that evening, but she does not appear. As he stands on the platform he suddenly decides to simply walk out of his life. He jumps onto the moving train with the book as his talisman, and heads for Lisbon to explore the life of Portuguese writer Amadeu de Prado whose words have mesmerised him and compelled him to action.

Gregorius acts as a detective in a restless and enthralling search for the life of a perfect stranger that is ultimately a search for true meaning in his own life. The close film shots of Lisbon’s steep cobbled streets, its intimate alleyways and courtyards shows off this organically alive and beautiful city and heightens the sense that Gregorius must uncover the secrets of its past. Behind the grand and crumbling facades of the buildings he is changed by his meetings with de Prado’s surviving relatives and friends and unravels the mystery.

As he puts the puzzle together, flashback scenes also vividly bring the time and place and the political and emotional intrigue of the 1970s back to life. He learns that de Prado was an extraordinary man, a person of blazing integrity, a difficult, brilliant, charismatic figure, a doctor and a poet, and a rebel against Salazar’s dictatorship. He also discovers that de Prado died very young from an aneurysm in his head. As de Prado’s story comes to light so, too, Gregorius himself begins his life anew.

The characters in Night Train to Lisbon are enthralling. Even those Gregorius meets only once are significant and every role, no matter how small, has substance. The performances are beautifully observed and masterfully nuanced: Jack Huston, son of the famed actor and director John Huston, gives a compelling portrayal of the passionate Amadeu, of his sensitivity and surreal other-worldliness. As the young Jorge, August Diehl encapsulates the depth of his inner turmoil and confusion; Mélanie Laurent illuminates the screen as the young Estefania, the embodiment of her youth and idealism; Charlotte Rampling evokes pathos and foreboding as Amadeu’s disconcerting sister Adriana who is frozen in time; Martina Gedeck charms as the sympathetic, supportive and openhearted optician Mariana who helps Gregorius to see more clearly both literally and figuratively.

Poignantly looking back over their lives the older actors – Tom Courtenay as the older Jaoa, an infirm fellow resistance fighter who was tortured by the police, and Bruno Ganz as the older Jorge who insists he does not trust anyone who does not take a drink and Lena Olin as the older Estefania – are particularly moving as the jealousies and misunderstandings of the past finally come to reconciliation in the present.

Night Train to Lisbon seamlessly entwines stories of past and present, character and place in a philosophical foray into the self that is both thought-provoking and cinematically stunning – with the promise that Gregorius’ journey of discovery can also be our own.

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