Film Review: Night Train To Lisbon
Prior to entering the theatre, Night Train to Lisbon appeared to have the right ‘ingredients’ for the type of film that I would enjoy: It has a star-studded cast led by the Academy Award-winning, John McClane-hating Jeremy Irons, a thriller-type plot that involves the solving of a mystery (and I do love me some mystery-solving), and political intrigue (I love me some of that as well). Unfortunately, as the film approached the end of its supposedly ‘thrilling’ adventure, this underwhelmed audience member felt like he had just taken the night train to Boredom instead (listen, I don’t recall making any promises to avoid bad puns).
Based on the internationally best-selling novel of the same name, Lisbon follows the story of Raimund Gregorius (played by Irons), a reserved Swiss professor who stumbles across an obscure book by Portuguese author Amadeu do Prado (Jack Huston) from a mysterious woman of whom he saved from committing suicide during a fateful encounter. Raimund identifies with Amadeu’s work so much so that it compels him to abandon his teaching career and embark on the titular journey to uncover the mystery of Amadeu’s life during the Salazar Dictatorship. The opening sequence – in which we see Raimund’s mundane, everyday routine get disrupted when he stops to prevent woman from jumping off a bridge, essentially saving her life – happens to be the strongest part of the film, in terms of it being both captivating and engaging: something that the events that follow never quite live up to.
Many of the Lisbon’s subsequent problems stemmed from Raimund’s interest in Amadeu’s book from the beginning. Raimund, and in turn director Billy August, goes out of their way to tell us how inspiring and thought-provoking Amadeu’s book is, but audiences (well, this audience member at least) were never quite convincingly sold on Raimund’s fascination with the book, at least not enough to warrant him putting his life on hold in search for the author’s life story. Combine that with the fact that little is known to the audience about Amadeus (you know, aside from the fact that he is apparently a great philosophical writer), the professor’s quest for the truth ultimately lacks a sense of agency. If we don’t know what we’re looking for and we’re unclear on why we’re looking for it, what we get is a ‘mystery’ that is devoid of suspense.
The central mystery is slowly revealed when Raimund tracks down the people close to Amadeus when he was alive, all of whom are more than happy to recite their fateful encounters with Amadeus as if they are reading from a history textbook, because the plot requires them to do so. The talented supporting cast – which includes Charlotte Rampling as Amadeu’s sister, Christopher Lee (Lord of the Rings) as Father Bartolomeu, Amadeu’s teacher and Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds) as young Estefânia, Amadeu’s love interest and fellow resistance member against the Salazar Dictatorship – does their best with material they are given, but the characters ultimately suffer similar issues as Huston’s Amadeu: they are underdeveloped and lacking a sense of agency, only there to serve as plot devices when the story calls for it.
Time and time again a character would reiterate how extraordinary or exciting something is, as if the film does not trust its audience enough to decide for themselves just how ‘extraordinary’ it actually is; with good reason, too. Sure, some of the events and plot turns that transpire throughout the film are of high stakes and sound thrilling on paper, but when the characters are not engaging enough for us to care about what happens to them, those scenes, no matter how high the stakes, become devoid of any tension whatsoever.
Look, it aint all bad. What pains me about this film is that there is, in fact a good story underneath the superfluous narration, but we only get brief glimpses of Lisbon’s most intriguing storyline in flashbacks. While it might be unfair – and I know it’s based on the novel – I can’t help but wonder if we’d get a better film had they just given us a straight-up period piece with Amadeus as the main character, rather than getting fragments of his story from Iron’s decidedly dull Raimund instead. Despite the film’s many flaws, Lisbon is worth watching if not for its beautiful cinematography by Fillip Zumbrunn, who successfully captured the beauty of Portugal in every shot. Hansjörg Weißbrich (whose credits include Requiem and Storm, in which he won awards for Best Editing) should also be commended for the impeccable editing throughout the film.
While I can imagine that it would make the perfect audio-visual companion to its best-selling source material, Night Train to Lisbon struggles to stand on its own merit. An intriguing premise, visually stunning cinematography and solid performances by the film’s talented cast are not enough to compensate for its stale dialogue, underdeveloped characters and overwrought narration.
I GIVE IT 2 OUT OF 5 SIMON GRUBERS
Simon Gruber enthusiast
Weekday show times for Night Train to Lisbon:
Cinema Paradiso, Northbridge - 164 James St, Northbridge WA
10:50am - 3:00 - 7:10 - 9:15pm
Windsor Cinemas, Nedlands - 98 Stirling Hwy, Nedlands WA
10:50am - 3:00 - 7:10 - 9:15pm