I’ve never read a book that was so inspiring it caused me to leave my job, board a train, and interview people for the better part of a week. However, I have seen a film or two that made me yearn to throw my computer out the nearest window, grab my passport, and leave all worries aside. The picturesque shots of Lisbon and the film’s cinematography are the brightest portion of this film. Just not quite bright enough.
Bille August directs Pascal Mercier’s international bestselling book of the same name about a man who leaves his boring life behind and travels to Lisbon to find out more about a mysterious book. The story begins with Raimund Gregorius (Jeremy Irons) saving a young Portuguese woman from committing suicide on a bridge in Switzerland. Before long the young woman disappears leaving behind her red coat, a train ticket to Lisbon, and a small book. Raimund reads a few passages from the book and is surprised by its philosophical depths. Noting that the woman’s train leaves within the hour Raimund hurries to the train station hoping to find the young woman. Without the young woman in sight and the train departing, Raimund spontaneously jumps onboard the night train to Lisbon. However, he is no longer interested in finding the young woman, but instead to find the author who wrote this inspiring book.
The film partly follows Raimund as he attempts to uncoil the events within the book written by a Portuguese doctor, Amadeu de Prado (Jack Huston). The rest of the movie focuses on flashbacks based on the conversations Raimund holds with people from Amadeu’s book. Amadeu’s book is a series of notes he accumulated as he reflected on events that took place during António de Oliveira Salazar’s dictatorship.
It is unclear when the book begins in Amadeu’s life, but Amadeu had become a doctor before deciding to assist his friends in a coup against the then government. Raimund finds Jorge O’Kelley (August Diehl) and Joao Eca (Marco D’Almeida), two of Amadeu’s friends, upon his arrival to Portugal and is told stories about Amadeu and Jorge’s girlfriend from this time, Estefania (Melanie Laurent). A love triangle soon develops as Estefania falls for Amadeu and the future of the group is changed. Estefania and Amadeu soon create an intimate relationship that fizzles just as quickly as it sparked.
Overall, the portions of the film told in flashbacks are the most effective scenes in the film. Mélanie Laurent (brilliant as Shosanna in Inglourious Basterds (2009)), August Diehl (just as brilliant as Major Hellstrom in …Basterds) and Jack Huston (who plays one of the best characters in recent years in the TV series Boardwalk Empire) all provide quality and convincing roles. However, the pacing of the storytelling never allows any tension to be built and the fine performances by these three young actors are less effective as a result.
By the time the young woman Raimund saved earlier in the film re-emerges, we are no longer interested in her story. We are also no longer invested in Raimund’s character, as he has refused to emerge from his lonely and boring shell. Overall, however, the film is worth seeing for the flashback scenes and enticing shots of Lisbon – I can say with confidence that Lisbon just moved up on the list of places I want to visit this summer.