Raimund Gregorius (Jeremy Irons) is a Latin teacher from Berne. When he encounters a book by the Portuguese poet and doctor Amadeu de Prado, he drops everything and takes the night train to Lisbon. He is determined to find out more about this writer who appears to have been obsessed by the very same questions that plague him: the purpose of human deeds and the unrealised potential of each and every life. His restless quest across Lisbon uncovers a contradictory portrait of a clever and brave yet conflicted man who lived at the time of Salazar’s dictatorship.
Amid the more colloquial levels of film-crit discourse (where the word 'Canadian’ is strictly an adjective, capable of evoking entire volumes of worthy tedium), there is a particular phenomenon known as the Euro-Pudding. It’s easily identifiable, and readily comprehensible, a function of expediency rather than inspiration. Its provenance is vague—a little German money here, some French tax credits there, perhaps an available soundstage in Romania... Its locations are top-notch; likewise its production design. The cast are a mixture of either second-tier or down-on-their-luck veterans, and fresh-faced young unknowns, all drawn from many lands. And everyone speaks English.
Based on a novel by Pascal Mercier, this is one of those, a throwback to a pre-EU age of international co-productions. The pacing is stately, and the storytelling static and talky; its director, Danish veteran Bille August—a onetime Foreign Language Oscar winner (for 1989’s Pelle the Conqueror)—is very much a craftsman of the old school. Yet the flipside of this is a robust sort of professionalism. The music is tasteful, and the surface unfailingly elegant. The camera is dependably where it ought to be. It’s not exciting in the least, but it is handsomely-made, and for older generations of filmgoers, longing for something devoid of superheroes or teenage warriors, something that reeks of Quality Drama, it may prove an enticing proposition.
While walking to school one morning in Bern, tweedy academic Raimund Gregorius happens upon a beautiful young woman standing on a bridge, clearly intending to jump. He rescues her, and brings her, somewhat ill-advisedly, to his class—only to subsequently lose her again. All that remains is her red overcoat, and the slim volume contained in one of the pockets: a limited edition of pensées by an unknown Portuguese author, Amadeu do Prado. But tucked inside it is something else: a ticket to Lisbon, on a train which just happens to be leaving in 15 minutes...
Puzzled by the mystery of the girl (who’s soon forgotten), and utterly beguiled by do Prado’s prose, Gregorius travels to the white city, a decision that seems a little hasty—though less in terms of his character than of the storytelling; we don’t yet know enough about him to make sense of what this abrupt departure might mean. As such, it’s typical of a film that, even at 111 minutes, feels cut down from a much longer work. There’s a rushed, almost perfunctory sense to the action (or at least, such action as there is) that infects individual scenes, and persists until the very final shot, which seems to end a good two beats earlier than it should.
Once the errant professor gets to Lisbon, he eagerly buttonholes anyone who’ll listen to recite some of do Prado’s writings—all the while, searching for clues as to where he might find him. Luckily, and altogether too conveniently, his every query meets with extraordinary success. The family name is in the telephone directory, though the writer’s sister (Charlotte Rampling) proves less than forthcoming; it falls to another helpful contact, one of Amadeu’s former associates, to reveal that in fact the writer died many years earlier, of an aneurysm, at the very dawn of the 1974 'carnation revolution’ that toppled the Estado Novo dictatorship.
From this point on, the film splits evenly between past and present, with a succession of witnesses telling Gregorius all about their relationship with the dead writer. Who, we learn, also worked as a doctor, and whose decision to save the life of a dying Rui Luís Mendes—the so-called 'Butcher of Lisbon’—pitted him against many of his former friends; his subsequent decision to join the revolutionary movement was at first an act of contrition, and later inspired by his love for fellow activist Estefania, a beautiful young woman with a photographic memory, who just happened to be the girlfriend of his own best friend, Jorge.
But this primary-source structure proves deadly: too many sequences here consist of little more than Gregorius nodding sagely as he listens, followed by an illustrative, this is how it happened flashback. The past may be turbulent, but the present is as inert as a stone. (Though, given this is one of the film’s recurring themes—Gregorius keeps marvelling at the vivid, reckless intensity of the lives do Prado and his friends lived, compared to the tepid complacency of his own—perhaps the writers are smarter than I initially believed.)
As the dogged yet (by his own admission) boring Gregorius, Jeremy Irons is mostly good, his dry, deracinated air entirely congruent with that of a divorced, slightly fussy academic. Otherwise, though, it’s a mixed bag: Rampling—something of a Euro-pudding specialist, these days—occasionally seems to forget what nationality she’s playing in mid-scene; and as a Portuguese optician, the usually excellent Martina Gedeck seems wooden and unconvincing.
However, as the doomed, idealistic do Prado, Jack Huston maintains the sterling form he displayed as Jack Kerouac in the forthcoming Kill Your Darlings—while Melanie Laurent, her hair dyed a glossy black, has never looked more beautiful. But overall, the honours here go to Tom Courtenay, who as an aging freedom fighter confined to a nursing home, his hands destroyed by Salazar’s thugs, manages to stroll away with every scene he’s in. (He also looks uncannily like the late Raul Ruiz.)
Overall, the casting is shrewd, with most of the younger actors closely resembling their older counterparts, though quite how August Diehl could grow up into Bruno Ganz—or why Christopher Lee, playing a conscience-stricken priest, has apparently aged at four times the rate of everyone around him—are questions the film clearly believes it better to ignore. (Of Ganz’s performance, similarly, the less said the better.)
An extraordinarily beautiful capital, Lisbon looks nothing short of splendid here. It’s also the city of Pessoa, and his great 'Book of Disquiet’ seems the chief influence upon the invented writings of do Prado. Which only brings into starker relief one of the biggest problems here, unfortunately common to movies dealing with fictional artistic geniuses: the need to reproduce their work onscreen. We’re treated to many excerpts from do Prado’s supposed opus, the unpromisingly titled 'A Goldsmith of Words’—either in a golden-lit flashbacks to the author himself writing it, or as read, aloud or in voiceover, by the besotted Gregorius. But none of these fragments rise much above the banal ('We travel into ourselves to confront our own loneliness,’ apparently—who knew?), which makes you wonder why the professor was so moved by these platitudes as to give up his own (admittedly rather dull) life and career in Switzerland.
Then again, perhaps this question, too, answers itself.
It’s not exciting in the least, but it is handsomely-made.