Whilst a controversial figure at times away from the screen, there is no doubt that Academy Award-winning Brit Jeremy Irons is possessed with considerable talent as an actor, whose willingness to take on provocative roles (Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune or Humbert Humbert in the remake of Lolita, for example) has also seen him emerge as a polarising on-screen presence as well. However, his latest outing as Raimond Gregorius in Night Train to Lisbon is unlikely to cause any offence, mainly because he doesn’t have much to do other than ask a lot of people a lot of questions in his quest to track down the various characters from a book that comes into his possession. The latest work from Danish director Bille August (The House of the Spirits, Pelle the Conqueror), Night Train to Lisbon is a sedate piece of filmmaking that relies very much on coincidence to propel the narrative.

Night Train to Lisbon poster

Gregorius, a divorced middle-aged teacher at a school in Bern, Switzerland, is on his way to work when he prevents a woman from jumping off a bridge. She accompanies him to his class, but quickly slips away, leaving only her red coat, in the pocket of which Gregorius discovers a book filled with philosophical ramblings from a Portuguese doctor named Amadeu de Prado. When Gregorius discovers a train ticket to Lisbon inside the book – for a service leaving in 15 minutes conveniently enough – he makes the impulsive decision to head to Portugal and seek out de Prado. Despite the obstructions of de Prado’s prickly sister Adriana (Charlotte Rampling), Gregorius soon discovers that the author is long dead. When a collision with a cyclist results in his glasses being smashed, Gregorius visits Mariana, an optometrist whose uncle Joao just happens to have been one of de Prado’s comrades in the Resistance Movement in the lead-up to the democratic revolution in 1974. Gregorius meets with Joao (Tom Courtenay) and other key figures from de Prado’s past, including his former teacher and priest (Christopher Lee) and boyhood friend Jorge (Bruno Ganz).

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It is the flashback sequences – which come via the recollections of the various people that Gregorios talks to – that work the best as they track de Prado (Jack Huston) and his friends in their efforts to subvert the government of the day amidst a backdrop of violence and repression. Having been friends since childhood, de Prado and Jorge (played as a young man by August Diehl) are inseparable until, of course, a woman enters the picture. Played by the bewitching Melanie Laurent, Stefania has her eyes firmly on the prize and is prepared to use whatever means necessary to achieve her objective of a political uprising. The period recreations are quite effective, although we don’t learn a great deal about the political landscape of the time and what, exactly, the resistance were rebelling against. There are moments of violence and surges of suspense, but momentum is lost every time we return to Gregorius in the present day, his budding romance with Mariana and the realisation that his life, and personality, are in need of an overhaul, admitting that his wife left him because he was boring.

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Of course, the problem is that such a boring character is not particularly compatible with an engaging cinema experience. To be fair though, Irons is burdened with a lifeless screenplay that gives him very little scope to make the character sympathetic in any way. The de Prado story is an interesting one and if the film focussed entirely on this, it certainly would have enabled greater exposition of the political machinations of the day, the various historical figures of import and the relationships between the fictional subversives. The locations are fabulous with the narrow winding streets, stone facades, cobblestones and cable cars of Lisbon particularly fetching.

It is a shame that the quality cast, which also features Lena Olin as the present-day incarnation of Stefania, did not have better material to work with. Huston, Diehl and Laurent are fine as the young idealists, while Courtenay is also strong as the grizzled older version of Jaoa. Overall though, Night Train to Lisbon derails on more than one occasion and a potentially engaging drama is ultimately reduced to snippets of excitement amidst an otherwise lacklustre adaptation of a novel by Swiss author Pascal Mercier.