Based on a novel of the same name by Pascal Mercier, Night Train To Lisbon is a definitely a film made for adults, full of complexities and nuances. It was slow, but nevertheless gripping and well paced, although certainly not for everyone. The film has two main plotlines, which work well with each other, although a smaller plotline doesn’t have a particularly satisfying conclusion. Another slightly disappointing thing was that the entire film was in English, with the actors performing with accents to indicate that the story is set in Portugal (some of these accents probably are real – there was a mixture of actors). The other thing that would be important to note is that having an understanding of Portuguese history or culture is important to fully appreciating a lot of the subtleties of the film.
The film starts rather abruptly, with a girl on a bridge attempting to commit suicide. This leads a Swiss teacher, Raimond Gregorius (Jeremy Irons), finds himself compelled to visit Lisbon after coming across a rare book by a Portuguese doctor named Amadeu do Porto. Moved by the prose of the book, he intends to find the author to speak with him about his touching work.
However, he discovers that the author is dead, and his honour is fiercely defended by Porto’s sister. As he researches the issue further, he uncovers a world of intrigue, love and betrayal, as well as an understanding of Amadeu do Porto’s personal philosophies and ideals, all set against the background of Caetano’s fascist Portugal. In between his discoveries of life under the fascist dictatorship, Gregorius makes a personal journey of discovery, and reinvents himself as a new man, with the help of a pretty optician, who also assists him with his endeavours to find out more about do Porto’s life. Whilst not overly convoluted or contrived, the plot, and the jumping between parallel storylines, does make for some interesting viewing, and it is important to pay attention to what is going on.
The acting in the film was excellent. Jeremy Irons was wonderful, and his portrayal of an awkward, withdrawn and bookish academic was very good. He conveys a sense of having little confidence after having been divorced, and likewise, the other characters were fleshed out and had depth, such as the optician’s uncle who initially distrusts Gregorius, but loosens up with the offer of cigarettes. Do Porto was also an interesting character, as his life was a mixture of snapshots, divided up in a loose chronological order. This meant that the viewer had to pay attention to the story to see at what time in do Porto’s life the film was showing. Overall however, the characterisation, and the acting, was well done.
Another aspect that was well executed was the depiction of life under the fascist regime. Whilst it would probably be beneficial to have an understanding of Portuguese culture, and of the fascist regime, it was not necessary to understand the general feel. The fear was definitely something that was presented; as was the secrecy of the revolutionaries; and the arrogance of the upper class, which was represented in Judge Prado, do Porto’s father, was also shown. It brought up the classism that existed (and presumably still exists) in Portugal, which is highlighted by the relationship between the aristocratic do Porto, and his schoolyard friend Jorge O’Kelly, who is from a lower-class background. Other themes that were predominant throughout were philosophical concepts, such as the concept of the individual, and what it means to be a person, with experiences and memories.
In regards to the negative aspects of the film, there were one or two issues. Firstly, one of the smaller plot points, the woman in the red jacket whose attempted suicide led Gregorius on his mission, had a rather unsatisfying conclusion. Whilst there shall be no spoilers here, the way that it was dealt with felt rushed and as though it was something that had been brought in at the last minute to deal with any plot holes. Secondly, the entire film felt like it had come straight from the novel. Whilst this was not a bad thing, and it gave the film a very adult feel (in a non-pornographic fashion), it means it is a slow film. That being said, there was tension and some action, especially at the climax of the film, where everything in the do Porto story comes to a head, and due to the mysterious nature of the story, the audience is unsure of what happens.
In conclusion, The Night Train To Lisbon was a fairly good film. Well acted, and with strong character development, the story was made enjoyable by the characters. Although at times the coherency of the timelines could be a little confusing at times, the plot was coherent and well paced. Admittedly, some of the smaller plotlines were resolved in a very unsatisfying fashion, especially regarding the girl in the red coat, but overall it was enjoyable. An enjoyable watch for a mature audience.