In the new film, Jeremy Irons plays a school teacher who is on the trail of a historical romance rattled by a Portuguese rebellion.

Why Night Train to Lisbon Doesn’t Quite Capture the Spark of its Revolutionary Setting




Angelika Film Center 5321 E. Mockingbird Ln. Dallas, TX 75206


Opens Dec 6

Night Train to Lisbon, based on the novel by Pascal Mercier, opens with a crisp, visual portrait of its central character. A man sits in a book stuffed Zurich apartment playing chess by himself. From the scene we know he is a thinker and he is lonely. With his thick-rimmed glasses, disheveled hair, and blazer, he seems contented, moved-in, rooted, sedentary. He is the picture of a man starved for some experience he hardly knows he’s missing. Or missing, at least, according to the wistful demands of the melodramatic genre he finds himself in.

Night Train to Lisbon is a swooning fancy which plays like the daydream of a pensioner on a lonely European vacation. The man, Raimund Gregorius (Jeremy Irons), finds himself caught up not only in a spurt-of-the-moment trip from dreary Zurich to zesty Lisbon, but in a series of chance happenings have him hot on the trail of a long buried romantic escapade. He finds a book, dropped by a girl about to jump off a bridge (naturally), and its supposedly profound existential musings lead him into a backstory of the Portuguese resistance. A charismatic doctor, his brave and tempestuous fellow, a beautiful young girl, and a spidery older sister all populate this fantasy of the recent past which flushes on screen in flashback. Raimund is our conduit, and his purpose or aim is unsure. Just as we are supposed to be satisfied by the snippets of philosophy that come delivered in voiceover from the pages of the found book, we are supposed to swallow Night Train to Lisbon’s trite reflections on what you might find when you risk everything and thrust yourself into the unknown. “Carpe diem,” we hear Robin Williams incanting from Dead Poets Society, as Raimund wanders his way in and out of the plot of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

It’s not all bad. There is a vicarious pleasure to these kinds of films, the clocking of heels on cobblestone streets, the beautiful women framed against the bay of Lisbon, rush of anxiety as police pound on doors and scruffy revolutionaries stick pistols in their pants. But Night Train to Lisbon is a tale of thematic one-liners. Its existential ponderings, though fleetingly curious, are used merely as a plot device; its reflections on revolution and struggle, or life and death are reduced to means to an end: the sentimental story of troubled, young romance. The movie touches on thoughts about chance, voyeurism, and forgotten history, but nothing seems to amount to anything. Even the ending, which finds Raimund on a train platform, faced with a life-altering decision, fades out without resolve. It’s somehow appropriate. Raimund’s character hasn’t really traveled very far at all in this film. He’s still playing with himself, pondering his next move.