I have not read Pascal Mercier’s acclaimed novel, Nachtzug nach Lissabon (Night Train to Lisbon, 2004), but the 2013 screen adaptation directed by Norwegian director Bille August rivals his earlier travesty of an adaptation of Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits (1993). Both have international casts including Jeremy Irons. Both are DOA. (I was also unimpressed by August’s 1997 film of Smilla’s Sense of Snow, though I remember liking his early Norwegian films about young rock-no-roll enthusiasts, “Zappa” (1983) and “Twist and Shout” (1984); I have not seen the acclaimed “Pelle the Conqueror” (1987).)
I don’t know why Jeremy Irons would be teaching a Latin class in English in Bern, Switzerland. It is pretty preposterous that the woman in a red coat on a bridge railing waits for him to rush up and pull her back and that he takes her along to his class and then rushes out when she slips out, leaving her coat.
The teacher, whose name is Raimund Gregorius (!), does not find a train itinerary in the book in the pocket of the coat until he is in the bookstore where she purchased it the day before. The train is leaving in 15 minutes, and he rushes to the train, does not see the woman, boards the train (still not having informed anyone at the school…) and instead of going from compartment to compartment looking for her, goes on to Lisbon.
Once there he goes to the office/home of the author of the book (Amadeu de Prado). There he is confused by the author’s sister Adriana (Charlotte Rampling). After being struck down by a bicyclist and breaking his glasses, he is charmed by the optometrist, Mariana (Martina Gedeck), whose uncle, João Eca (Tom Courtenay) knew the writer and is restive in a nursing home where he is prevented from smoking.
Raimund goes around collecting accounts of Amadeu’s life. Those remembering him include Bruno Ganz, Christopher Lee, and Lina Ohlin. In flashbacks Jack Huston (with a whole face, unlike on “Boardwalk Empire”) is the supposedly dashing lead, a physician who writes compulsively (though what his sister gathered and published is a small book).
The romantic triangle set in the resistance to the Salazar regime in its waning days (early-1970s) is more hackneyed than preposterous (in addition to Huston, its points are played by Mélanie Laurent and August Dieh, who were both in “Inglorious Basterds”, she more prominently than he). In the mix of accents, the only one that sounds remotely Portuguese is Tom Courtenay’s. And none of the at-all major parts are played by anyone Iberian, let alone Portuguese.
Aside from the pleasure of seeing various oldsters, the backdrops of Bern, Lisbon, and Caixias provide pleasure. The quest to learn about the author is preposterous, though some context emerges for the woman in the red coat, who, of course, turns up to explain herself to Raimund (who still has the job despite abandoning his class and not answering the repeated question of whether he wanted to be replaced).
Raimund forestalls viewers’ judgment by proclaiming himself boring, though Mariana tells him he is not. The direction is flaccid. I think that August hoped to make a thriller out of a book about reading thoughts of a latter-day Fernando Pessoa (who used many pseudonyms and mythologized Lisbon; he lieved form 1888 to 1935, somewhat longer than the fictional Amadeu de Prado).