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More sentimental journeys

OUT NOW! Lack of pace stops any potential insight from this film version of Pascal Mercier's novel NIGHT TRAIN TO LISBON dead in its tracks.

Sentimental, adj. Having or arousing feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia, typically in an exaggerated and self-indulgent way.

Pascal Mercier’s best-selling novel Night Train to Lisbon presented a man on a journey into his emotional self and the realisation that it takes an awareness of death to heighten the experience of life. With moderately acclaimed film versions of novels such as House of Spirits under his belt, it’s a disappointment to see that Bille August’s formerly common touch has turned populist.

The term ‘ensemble cast’ does little justice to a star-studded line-up featuring Jeremy Irons in the role of Raimund Gregorius, a classics teacher of understated passions in Bern, whose encounter with a young Portuguese woman introduces him to the life and work of Amadeo Prado, a doctor and resistance fighter during António Salazar’s fascist dictatorship in the early 1970s. Travelling ad hoc to Lisbon, Gregorius relives this period in Prado’s life through contacts made to Prado’s family and comrades, immersing himself in vicarious commitment until the spark of vitality finally lights up his own life.

The use of flashbacks to tell a story in two time zones is a convention that benefits above all from singularities in pace and atmosphere. The absence of finesses such as these in August’s film is compounded by the ubiquitous, mysteriously accented English spoken by all protagonists – even in scenes featuring only Portuguese resistance fighters. The transfer of internalised and philosophically nuanced processes to a visual medium requires selective dialogue and subtle screenplay: also lacking. Branding this film as self-indulgent goes too far, but so many small failings make it difficult to keep an eye on the big themes of what purports to be a big picture.  

Night Train to Lisbon  | Directed by Bille August (Germany, Switzerland, Portugal 2013) with Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Martina Gedeck, Jack Huston. Starts March 7