Sometimes a well-written story is all you truly need to make a successful film and I believe author Pascal Mercier‘s novel Night Train to Lisbon provides one. Adapted by Greg Latter and Ulrich Herrmann with Bille August as director, the cinematic version of this look back at romance in a time of revolution unfolds with its melodic Annette Focks score as though we’re sitting over a cup of tea across from each character as they tell their part in the mystery of Amadeu de Prado’s (Jack Huston) too-short life. Devoid of action sequences, shrouded in a cloud of elegiac reverence, and guided by a self-proclaimed bore out of his depth with curiosity striking for the first time ever in his sixty-plus years, I have to admit I was riveted by each new discovery and revelation.
It starts with Professor Raimund Gregorius’ (Jeremy Irons) normal morning routine getting sidetracked by a young woman (Sarah Bühlmann) standing on the rail of a bridge along his way to school. Releasing his umbrella and dropping his papers to reach and grab her from what was surely to be a suicidal plunge into the water, this surprising act of adrenaline is only but the start of his escape from a reserved lifestyle spent in solitude. Shaken and quiet with thanks, the woman escorts him to class where he attempts to down-play the experience until a time where he can speak with her away from the prying eyes of students delighted in their immature hypothesis that Mr. Gregorius has found a girlfriend. When she abruptly leaves, however, he realizes her story is infinitely more important than another day correcting essays.
A book she left inside her coat takes him to his favorite Swiss bookstore before climbing the titular train to its author’s hometown. Raimund is captivated by the philosophical musings on topics he too questioned—religion, spirituality, love, and being—and eager to make his acquaintance. While the young doctor/author Amadeu sadly passed decades previous, however, the mark he left was anything but gone. So, through a series of serendipitous events ranging from finding Amadeu’s sister Adriana (Charlotte Rampling) in the phone book to discovering the optometrist (Martina Gedeck‘s Mariana) repairing his fatefully smashed glasses was the niece of one of the doctor’s former revolutionary comrades, Raimund attempts to exorcise the demons of this joined history long since repressed by all involved for no other reason than to honor a life far more fascinating than his own.
We’re therefore treated to two stories: Raimund’s social renaissance and Amadeu’s role in the 1970s civil rebellion against a brutal regime epitomized here by the fictitious Butcher of Lisbon (Adriano Luz). Everything may eventually circle back to the young woman on the bridge, but until then it provides a series of flashbacked stories told to Raimund by the few people Amadeu loved. There’s João Eça, an imprisoned and beaten reactionary now living in a nursing home (played by Marco D’Almeida and Tom Courtenay as young and old respectively); Amadeu’s best friend Jorge who joined the fight for his working class brethren (August Diehl/Bruno Ganz); and Jorge’s girlfriend Estefânia who housed their allies’ names and numbers in her photographic memory (Mélanie Laurent/Lena Olin). Adriana and Father Bartolomeu (Christopher Lee) round out the cast so the tale can take shape.
It’s a carefully manipulated story that gives us only what’s necessary to get to the next memory—glimpses often triggered by where their conversations are held. Raimund listens intently, bringing up painful feelings his subjects are uninterested in recalling and providing a venue so they may cathartically bear their souls. None knew exactly what happened besides how the love between Estefânia and Amadeu fractured both familial relationships and friendships, so Raimund serves as our conduit to the truth as well as theirs. His search fills in their blanks and helps alleviate the pain and regret they held onto to open them up to share even more. And as Raimund tells everything to Mariana with fervor for life so against his self-described image, she can’t help but grow smitten with his passion to follow their tale to its end.
Irons is fantastic as our narrator—equal parts sensitive historian and shyly awkward stranger on an infectious mission that has him completely ignoring his old life. He is humble and apologetic in his dealings with those who touched Amadeu’s life, enamored by their secrets to satisfy his own curiosity as well as ease the guilt they’ve held for too long. Laurent, Diehl, D’Almeida, and Huston perform their roles in flashback with success, creating a world of injustice where they stand as heroic figures of youthful rebellion with love proving to be a conquering force as well as a damning one. But I will admit that I found myself captivated by their aged counterparts more as the silent pain weighing them down for so many years is etched in Courtenay, Olin, and especially Ganz’s faces and voices.
Night Train to Lisbon is in many ways similar to 2010’s The Debt without its more suspenseful action set-ups considering those involved here are merely concerned citizens who can no longer stand idly by rather than professionally trained soldiers. It has a more leisurely pace as well with things unfolding as they probably do in the book—revealed in their own time with care and importance rather than strictly for entertainment. An intriguing document of Portuguese revolution spanning social classes, gender, and religious belief, we watch as moral ideals usurp any and all constructs of monetary worth when these kids decide to look towards a freedom beyond their own. Personal emotion may get in the way for dramatic purposes, but these characters seem to always know there was something more important behind it.
Night Train to Lisbon hits limited release on Friday, December 6th.