An aged professor stops a young woman from leaping off a Swiss bridge. She disappears, leaving behind only her bright red coat and a moving, poetic, 40 year old book — in Portuguese.
Thus begins “Night Train to Lisbon,” an old fashioned romantic mystery that benefits from a wizened, much-honored cast and a still-exotic setting.
Jeremy Irons plays Raimond Gregorius, the philosophy teacher who abandons his class — right in the middle of a Marcus Aurelius lecture — to follow this book and chase that anonymous, lost soul to Lisbon. During the course of his travels, he will see the ancient city, walk its streets and meet lots of people his own age who tell him of the book’s author, of the world he moved in and the very unpleasant Portuguese history — the 1970s, the tail end of a dictatorship — of that author’s time.
In flashbacks, we meet the writer, a doctor played by Jack Huston with just enough romantic dash. Melanie Laurent and August Diehl are the doctor’s contemporaries in those flashbacks. We see secret meetings, the intrigues, torture and love triangle that was the doctor’s life. And we hear his words — read by the professor.
“Everything we do is out of fear of loneliness,” the doctor muses. “Take a completely different direction from the one that has made us who we are.”
That’s the one the professor has taken to heart, a man of letters acting on an impulse, traveling with only his wallet and his phone from Bern to Lisbon.
It’s a sedate and civilized movie, which Danish director Bille August (“The House of the Spirits”,”Pelle the Conqueror”) handles with care, if not a lot of spark or daring. The film plays like a more satisfying version of his soapier collaboration with Irons, “House of the Spirits.”
The real pleasure here is in the casting, in seeing the great Irons share scenes with Tom Courtenay, as a crippled old revolutionary, Charlotte Rampling as the doctor’s still-grieving sister, Christopher Lee as a priest who knew the fiery young doctor, and Lena Olin and Bruno Ganz as fellow revolutionaries.
Irons gives a sensitive, brooding performance, never once letting us question whether such a man would engage in such out-of-character behavior. And the book he quotes (the film is based on a Pascal Mercier novel) is just pithy enough to inspire such a journey. When we travel, Dr. Amadeu de Prado writes, we withdraw into our heads and into our past.
No matter where we’re going, the doctor wrote and the professor understands, “We travel to ourselves.”
MPAA Rating:R for a scene of violence, and brief sexuality
Cast: Jeremy Irons, Lena Olin, Jack Huston, Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Bruno Ganz,
Credits: Directed by Bille August , written by Greg Latter and Ulrich Hermann, based on the Pascal Mercier novel. A Wrekin Hill release.
Running time: 1:51
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