Film review: Night Train to Lisbon

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Night Train to Lisbon

Reviewed by Kate Prendergast

Edited by Siobhan Hodge

Film: Night Train to Lisbon
Director: Billie August
Running Time: 111 minutes
Year of Release: 2013
Language: English

A Philosophical Wayfaring into Secrets of Lisbon's Past

After a Swiss history teacher saves a mysterious woman from plunging to her death from a bridge, the staid monotony of his erstwhile life veers off into a new, unexpected, and invigorating direction. The woman vanishes just as quickly as she appeared, but Raimund (played with Jeremy Irons’ panther-like grace) finds a book tucked away in the pocket of her abandoned jacket. Making inquiries with the man who sold it to her, he becomes convinced that the book had some influence in the young woman’s attempt to take her life. Intrigued, he delves into its pages, and discovers the private philosophy of a young Portuguese man called Armandeu de Prado. Its introspective meanderings resonate with questions he has been asking himself for years, and he develops a historian’s unparalleled obsession with the man who penned them.

Nestled between two pages of the book is a train ticket to Lisbon. It is scheduled to depart that very night. With barely a moment’s hesitation and absolutely no compunction, Raimund boards the train, leaving behind his habitus of cosy tedium. With curiosity and compassion as twin guides, Raimund thenceforth embarks upon a journey into the mystery that encircled the author of the book (now dead) and those closest to him. The earnestness of this outsider’s entrance into the community melts the wedge of ice that has estranged its members. The taboo that has thrown a mantle of silence over the history of Lisbon’s right-wing dictatorship is broken like the lifting of a curse, bringing into the open a story of love, jealousy and loyalty that played out within a small cabal of the Lisbon resistance in the 1970’s.

The film begins with a giddy excitement that slips occasionally into cliché; it bounds away like a puppy skittering about the newly-washed floors of a Gothic mansion playhouse. So headfirst does it plunge into adventure that initially, the plot seems to teeter on the precipice to the incredible. Most irritating was the staging of Raimund’s inchoate romance with his optometrist, who, by replacing his clunky spectacles with rimless crystal lenses, enables him to ‘see clearer’. The metaphor is so overdone here the film may as well have placed a little man in the corner of the screen, pointing and gabbling to the audience: ‘She’s giving him a new perspective on life! Ya see? Do you? Hah!’ One is also inclined to wonder if locals would really forebear a stranger and a foreigner poking about their private histories— regardless of how isolated they’ve become due to the rime of silence that has encased itself about their lives.

Extracts from Prado’s book glide in and out of the drama as a solemn motif, serving as to echo and reinforce the ‘quiet revolution’ taking place within the main character himself, whose key revelation is that he is not, as he has long suspected, ‘boring’. Although central to the story and soul-searchingly powerful in their own right, these passages can come across as a tad bit too pompously melancholic. The film attempts to allay this by rounding them off with a bathetic effect—their deep sentiments are constantly interrupted by the burbling chirrups of Raimund’s mobile—but the strategy doesn’t quite work.

Night Train to Lisbon is in fact the film adaptation of Pascal Mercier’s international best-selling novel of the same name and— all above-stated pernickety criticism aside— Danish director Bille August brings it to the screen with the same sort of fundamental humanity that enchanted those who read it. Although the story has undoubtedly suffered from being squeezed into a media with a far more austere narrative economy, the film has a way of getting under your skin in spite of its failings. One gets the impression that August is something of an old-fashioned and incurable Romantic, exuding a sentimentality so benevolent, you feel warm in his generous handling of the drama, rather than overburdened and unconvinced. This feeling enhances as the film gathers pace, and the layers of past, present and future form a complex skein; ultimately ensuring its meaning is unlikely to burn away with the return of the cinema lights.

Night Train to Lisbon screens from December 5th 2013 at Cinema Paradiso in Northbridge and The Windsor in Nedlands.