Night Train to Lisbon at the Cinema

Was it possible that the best way to make sure of yourself was to know and understand someone else?

Ever since I read Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon (“an international best seller”), I heard rumors that a film might be made of it. Finally, they did and finally I saw it the other day. I found it as splendid as the book, one of the best I’ve ever read.

Most everything is there, the adaptation, unlike so many others, is true to the novel. The casting matches my notion of the characters--Jeremy Irons as Gregorious, the scholarly classics and linguistics teacher, Jack Huston as Amadeau de Prado, the Portuguese physician/writer, Melanie Laurent as the young Estefania, Prado’s love, Lena Olin as the aged Estefania.

The film begins, as it does in the novel, with Gregorious rescuing a young woman who is about to take her life jumping off a bridge. The encounter leads him to a bookstore where he discovers Prado’s volume, A Goldsmith of Words, is so entranced by it that he abandons his class and take the next train to Lisbon in order to find out more about Prado’s life.

…he had the amazing feeling, both upsetting and liberating, that at the age of fifty-seven, he was about to take his life into his own hands for the first time.

Once there the people he meets come alive on the screen—Prado’s teacher, Father Bartholomeu, and we hear every word of the rebellious speech Prado gives when he graduates. We are introduced to Mariana, the optician, who prepares a new set of glasses to replace those Gregorious broke in rescuing the girl on the bridge, and serves as his guide around Lisbon.

We meet Prado’s best friend, Jorge, and then his sister, Adriana who, after much hesitation, eventually shows him the house where they lived, his study and medical office. Later we meet Prado’s friends in the resistance, fighting the dictatorship of Salazar in the 70’s, led by Estefania who is known to have a photographic memory of the phone number of every resistance member. Eventually this makes it necessary for her to escape to Spain when Salazar’s henchmen attempt to capture her. Prado drives her there.

You’re too hungry for me. It’s wonderful with you. But you’re too hungry for me. I can’t want this trip. You see, it would be your trip, yours alone. It couldn’t be ours.

It is all so familiar after reading the book twice, writing about it, and pondering it’s endless, unanswered questions. This adaptation is so unlike the recent film version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, whose character is nothing like one I had imagined for years once I read James Thurber’s short story. That film will be easily forgotten, while the one of Night Train to Lisbon will move the novel even deeper into my mind.