The Unfashionable Night Train to Lisbon Isn’t Afraid of Being Dull


Bille August, now in his mid-60s, makes films for the aging genteel — perhaps a shrewd choice, demographically, as our great many boomers march ahead into antiquity.

His latest, Night Train to Lisbon, is the sort of picture probably best enjoyed over a pipe and a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon, the better to savor its dry, full-bodied taste.

August, a two-time winner of the Palme d’Or, has long since fallen out of critical favor, and it isn’t especially difficult to understand why: The pallid sensibility he clings to simply isn’t fashionable these days — particularly in his native Denmark, where enfants terribles like Nicolas Winding Refn and Lars von Trier have found success through provocation.

Night Train to Lisbon has no intention of provoking anyone; it would much rather soothe and dreamily lull them. Well, gentle has its charms, and August’s vision of the world, archaic though it may willingly be, is appealingly urbane — a place of cultivated scholars and storied elder statesmen, where sophisticated travelers pass the time luxuriating in European elegance, poring over rare books and reciting passages from memory.

Raimund Gregorius (Jeremy Irons), the hero of the film, worries aloud that he may be too boring. August clearly does not: that any of this may be dull doesn’t seem to have ever crossed his mind. He’s certainly confident in the strength of the material, or perhaps he just doesn’t care. Everything about August and his film is old-fashioned. And that’s just the way he likes it.