Jeremy Irons really is the iron man. In Bille August’s “Night Train to Lisbon,” adapted from Pascal Mercier’s novel of the same name, he plays Raimund Gregorius, a tweedy classics professor based in Bern who, one day, saves the life of a young woman who’s about to throw herself off a bridge. Since he’s on his way to class, he coaxes her to come along with him; but while he’s teaching, she slips out of the room, leaving her coat behind. In the jacket pocket, Raimund finds a book and a train ticket to Lisbon. The journey he then undertakes is supposed to be intriguing, though it’s mostly just tedious.
Irons gives his all – he’s glamorous in a befuddled, bespectacled way - so it’s a good thing there are relatively few scenes in “Night Train to Lisbon” that don’t feature him, as he keeps the film breathing whenever he’s on screen. Admittedly, August and screenwriters Greg Latter and Ulrich Herrmann faced a tall order in adapting this material to the screen. Mercier’s book is one of those untamable beasts, a novel of ideas, set in Portugal in the last years of right-wing dictator António de Oliveira Salazar’s reign. The story’s action is woven around the work and ideas of an idealistic young doctor and revolutionary, Amadeu de Prado, the author of the mysterious book found by Raimund (he’s played by Jack Huston, of “Boardwalk Empire,” and also recently seen in David Chase’s “Not Fade Away”).
But it’s hard to articulate ideas onscreen unless you put them in the mouths of people, which means that means there is Much Important Speechmaking among the characters in “Night Train to Lisbon,” many of them passionate young people who lived in a dangerous time and fought for something better. The story is told in flashback, revealed by Raimund as he travels through Lisbon locating and meeting with Amadeu’s remaining colleagues, unraveling the mysteries of their youth circa 1974: There’s Jorge O’Kelly (August Diehl), a brainy activist and Amadeu’s closest friend; João (Marco D’Almeida), who becomes a victim of his own idealism at the hands of Salazar’s thugs; and Estefania (Mélanie Laurent), a lefty beauty with a photographic memory who becomes the apex of a love triangle involving Jorge and Amadeu.
All of these characters spend lots of time spouting the sorts of things that Communists always go around saying in movies: “What eef your first assignment was to keel your father?” Estefania asks Amadeu when he first asks to join the vaguely defined resistance party she and Jorge have been putting together. These people are slightly easier to take in their older, present-day versions, as tracked down by Raimund: João is played by a pleasingly grumpy Tom Courtenay, and Bruno Ganz makes for a scenery-munching but entertaining Jorge.
There’s all manner of political intrigue, cruelty and betrayal in “Night Train to Lisbon.” But if a movie can be polished to dullness, this one is. August – who, years ago, adapted Isabel Allende’s “House of the Spirits” for the screen – is deadly earnest in his approach to the material, and even if that’s the only option with concepts and characters like these, you wish he’d found ways to let a little bit of air in.
Thankfully, shot on location by cinematographer Filip Zumbrunn, the picture is gorgeous to look at, keying in on joyfully patterned ceramic tiles and winding cobblestone streets. And rumpled old Raimund gets a love interest, too, in the form of an optometrist played by the fine German actress Martina Gedeck. The two have some lovely scenes together; they talk like real human beings do, instead of just being mouthpieces for stiff political ideas. They may not be the most revolutionary characters in “Night Train to Lisbon,” but they’re surely the most watchable.