BERLIN – Every car is a sleeper on the stunningly tedious Night Train to Lisbon, a load of old windbaggery in which people keep remarking what a fascinating story is being told, yet they fail to make any kind of a case for it. Adapted from an apparent bestseller by Swiss author Pascal Mercier, and directed by Bille August with a steadfast rejection of imagination or style, this is an antiquated throwback to the lumpy English-language Europuddings that mostly died out in the 1990s, R.I.P.
While one might have hoped The Borgias had freshened his taste for less bloodless characters, Jeremy Irons is back to playing parched and constipated as Raimund Gregorius, a tweedy classical studies teacher at a school in Bern, Switzerland. Rushing to work in the rain one day, he sees a young woman (Sarah Spale-Buhlmann) poised to throw herself off the Kirchenfeld Bridge. He yanks her off the railing and whisks her to his class, no questions asked. But she slips away, leaving only a red coat behind.
In the pocket is a book of platitudinous philosophical musings by a Portuguese doctor name Amadeu de Prado, its title translated as “A Goldsmith of Words.” (Quick, somebody snap up that domain name.) Inside the volume is a ticket to Lisbon on a train leaving … in 15 minutes!
By the time he gets to the station, Raimund is profoundly affected by de Prado’s illuminating thoughts, streams of which are heard in voiceover. “We live only a small part of the life that is within us,” …blah, blah, “What should be done with all the time that lies ahead of us?” …blah, blah, “We travel to ourselves to confront our own loneliness,” …blah, blah. This heady stuff hits Raimund where he lives, making him impulsively board the departing train.
One of the less startling revelations of the film comes when Raimund confesses that his wife left him because he’s boring. The woman with whom he shares this newsflash, sympathetic optician Mariana (Martina Gedeck), feels differently, but with Irons’ dreary performance to back him up, he’ll get no argument elsewhere. In fact, Raimund is so boring that he sucks the life out of the eventful personal story of Amadeu, even as he’s piecing it together from a number of mysterious sources.
These include the late author’s dour sister (Charlotte Rampling); a priest who taught the brilliant magistrate’s son at high school (Christopher Lee); and Mariana’s grumpy, institutionalized Uncle Joao (Tom Courtenay), who was involved with Amadeu in the Resistance movement in the early 1970s, during the waning years of the dictatorial Salazar regime. Eventually, Raimund also accesses the final pieces of the puzzle, Jorge (Bruno Ganz) and Estefania (Lena Olin), who formed a romantic triangle with Amadeu back in their Resistance days.
The courageous idealism that drew them together, the emotional entanglements and the dangerous developments that broke them apart become clear via overlapping accounts of the events of many years ago. Jack Huston plays Amadeu in the extended flashbacks that accompany Raimund’s obsessive investigation, with August Diehl as the young Jorge, Melanie Laurent as Estefania and Marco D’Almeida as Joao.
With decent period recreation from the production and costume design team, these meatier historical scenes are a mild improvement on the plodding contemporary sleuthing. And the actors at least seem to be in the same movie, unlike some of their senior counterparts. But in Greg Latter and Ulrich Herrmann’s by-the-numbers screenplay, key events remain hopelessly page-bound.
One example is the scene, recalled by Lee’s clergyman, in which Amadeu, fired up by reading Sartre and Marx with his working-class buddy Jorge, gives a graduation speech in which he shocks the gathered assembly and humiliates his regime-connected father (Burghart Klaussner) by condemning the supporters of tyranny and asserting the freedom to rebel against cruelty. Huston gives it his best shot, but impassioned as they are, his words are prose, not drama.
Back in the present day, where the first gentle flickers of romance with Mariana are felt, Raimund keeps muttering about the extraordinary vitality and intensity of those youthful lives, especially compared to his own colorless existence. But despite a few minor surges of suspense, and committed work from Huston, Diehl and the lovely Laurent, the characters never fully emerge from the thicket of what seems like 90 percent exposition.
Of the older cast members, Courtenay musters some spark in his scenes, and at least sticks to a consistent accent. Rampling appears to change nationality mid-scene, and whatever Ganz is aiming for, only he knows.
Veteran Danish director August – still best recognized for his 1989 Oscar winner Pelle the Conqueror – is mired here in an outmoded storytelling approach, not to mention drawn to material of questionable screen viability. (It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to pick up Mercier’s novel based on this stodgy evidence.)
Despite the old-world elegance of Bern, the cobbled charms of Lisbon and some panoramic views of Portuguese coastal roads, the film is uninterestingly shot. It’s also carpeted by composer Annette Focks with generic orchestral padding in the absence of a dramatic pulse. None of that will help this relic see much light of day outside its co-production territories, Germany and Switzerland.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production companies: Studio Hamburg FilmProduktion, C-Films
Cast: Jeremy Irons, Melanie Laurent, Jack Huston, Martina Gedeck, Tom Courtenay, August Diehl, Bruno Ganz, Lena Olin, Christopher Lee, Charlotte Rampling, Beatriz Batarda, Marco D’Almeida
Director: Bille August
Screenwriters: Greg Latter, Ulrich Herrmann, based on the novel by Pascal Mercier
Producers: Peter Reichenbach, Gunther Russ, Kerstin Ramcke, Michael Lehmann, Michael Steiger
Executive producers: Oliver Simon, Daniel Baur, Eric Fischer, Kevin Frakes
Director of photography: Filip Zumbrunn
Production designer: Augusto Mayer
Music: Annette Focks
Costume designer: Monika Jacobs
Editor: Hansjorg Weissbrich
Sales: K5 International
No rating, 110 minutes