Judge Clark Douglas is taking the next train out of town.
"Given that we only live a small part of what there is in us—what happens with the rest?"
As our story begins, Swiss Professor Raimund Gregorious is walking down the street, minding his own business. Suddenly, he spots a young woman who seems as if she's about to throw herself from a bridge. He frantically pulls her down in an effort to save her life, and in the aftermath of the chaos ends up in the possession of a strange book. Upon examining the book, he finds himself intrigued by its contents and begins an investigation into its origins. Soon, the professor is caught up in the story of a young revolutionary (Jack Huston, Boardwalk Empire)—a tangled web of politics, philosophy, love and death.
I haven't read Pascal Mercier's Night Train to Lisbon, but the book received a warm critical reception upon its release and was praised for its engaging plot and philosophical depth. The 2013 film version has been panned by nearly every critic who has seen it, with many citing its plodding dullness. Without having experienced both versions of the story it's impossible to say what was lost in translation, but I can say without question that the film certainly feels like the epitome of an unsuccessful book-to-film adaptation.
The film's director is Bille August, who has a mixed track record when it comes to these things. I'm very fond of his adaptation of Les Miserables, which cut to the heart of that story effectively without seeming shallow. Pelle the Conqueror is an affecting tale, and The House of the Spirits is at least modestly engaging. However, it's been a long while since August has made anything of particular note, and it's exceptionally unlikely that Night Train to Lisbon is going to make anyone start seeking out his back catalogue. Everything feels so drab and lifeless, as if the film itself is attempting to mimic the plain professionalism of the Irons character.
It must be noted that Irons is easily the best thing about this underwhelming film (a sentence that I've typed variations on entirely too many times). It's a bit startling to see him so effective as a sheepish scholar after sitting through three seasons of his scenery-chewing plotting and scheming on The Borgias. He has a couple of moments with Lena Olin, which are simply lovely, but even a classy cast can't overcome the film's stiffness and lack of dramatic impact. While philosophy was evidently a crucial portion of the book, it's merely paid lip-service in the movie version. Understandable that a film might focus on the thriller aspects, but August somehow never manages to draw any tension out of the film (particularly the flashback sequences, which take up roughly half the running time). Though I'm a big fan of Jack Huston in general, he's badly miscast as the young Portuguese revolutionary—his accent is consistently distracting.
The film's conventionally attractive and professional in a technical sense, but it just lies there like some sort of museum exhibit. Perhaps few of the people involved really felt strongly about the material. It's also possible that August has made the mistake James Ivory occasionally makes, which is trying so hard to present a tale with subtlety that he neglects to bring any conviction to the table. Whatever the cause, Night Train to Lisbon is so bland that you're likely to forget about it in no time at all.
Night Train to Lisbon has received a very good standard-def transfer, which does a nice job of highlighting the film's evocative locations. Detail is sturdy throughout, depth is impressive and flesh tones look natural. The Dolby 5.1 surround track spotlights the film's elegant score quite well, and dialogue is crisp and clear throughout. The film's sound design is subtly immersive when it needs to be—again, the film seems perfectly solid from a production standpoint. Supplements include a making-of featurette, a handful of cast and crew interviews and a trailer.
Despite a lot of elements that seem promising on paper, Night Train to Lisbon is an unrewarding ride.
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