Night Train to Lisbon

Jeremy Irons' Journey to the Past

Dec. 28, 2013
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Jeremy Irons is always worth watching. In Night Train to Lisbon, he plays Raimund Gregorius, a Latin instructor and doddering intellectual who can’t see the world beyond his books. On his way to the academy, he looks up and notices a woman about to jump off a bridge into the river below. During their brief encounter, Gregorius comes into possession of the book she was carrying, a poetic meditation on life by an unknown Portuguese author. Entranced, he abandons his class in the midst of a lesson and takes the train from rainy Bern to sunny Lisbon, whether in pursuit of the mysterious woman or the mysterious author it’s not clear at first.

Night Train to Lisbon, directed by Billie August from Pascal Mercier’s novel, suffers at the onset from lack of motivation for the abrupt actions of its protagonist. Sure, Gregorius is having a midlife crisis and could use a holiday in the sun, but would this parched, fastidious pedant really abandon everything—and in the middle of class?—for a strange woman and the book she left behind? Perhaps the novel gave greater access than the movie to the professor’s internal processes. On screen, we are left with a well-acted cipher—the sensitive soul in an awkward skin that Irons does so well.

Putting that aside, along with an unlikely autumn-summer with the optometrist who fits him for new glasses after he broke his old pair in a fall, Night Train becomes an interesting history detective story-quest as Gregorius seeks the author of the slender volume he finds so profound, Amadeu de Prado. “The real director of life is accident,” Prado wrote, providing Night Train’s plotline with its metaphysical support. Prado died in 1974 as the revolution that toppled Portugal’s fascist dictatorship gathered steam; he was involved in the “Resistance,” but his surviving comrades aren’t always eager to speak. “Why do you bring back the past?” demands the aged servant still working in the Prado household.

Why indeed? Night Train to Lisbon never provides a clear answer. Gregorius’ search brings him deep into the moral complications of repression and resistance, but one suspects that the romance he found was far more satisfying. Night Train to Lisbon is out on DVD.



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