Faithfully following the same track as the acclaimed 2002 French drama that inspired it, “The Man on the Train” is a leisurely paced but consistently engrossing tale of two men who come to see in each other the end of a road not taken. With Donald Sutherland offering one of his finest performances and U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr. demonstrating his proficiency in a character-actor gig, this Canadian-produced version of Patrice Leconte’s arthouse hit could attract sophisticated viewers when it pulls into VOD and homevid stations Oct. 28.
Capably directed by Irish helmer Mary McGuckian (“This Is the Sea”), whose screenplay is aptly billed as a “translation” in the opening credits, “Man on the Train” pivots on a chance encounter between two disparate characters who are no less memorable for never being identified by name.
The traveler of the title (Mullen) arrives late one afternoon in a small town, obviously with something illegal on his agenda. Just as obviously, he has a throbbing headache, which necessitates a trip to the local pharmacy. That’s where he meets a retired literature professor (Sutherland) who just happens to be getting a refill for his migraine medicine.
Immediately intrigued by the newcomer, the professor offers the stranger a few pills and, since the only hotel in town is shuttered for the season, a place to stay. Warily, the stranger accepts the offer of hospitality but is slow to respond to his host’s conversational gambits. That’s OK: The professor is perfectly willing to do enough talking for both of them.
Gradually, however, each man becomes fascinated by, and maybe a tad envious of, how the other lives. The professor, long resigned to a life of safe routines and avoided risks, bemoans his “uncanny ability to miss out on all the highlights of my life,” and wishes he could come across as mysterious, if not downright dangerous, as his younger, less loquacious guest. Meanwhile, the stranger wanders about the cluttered rooms of the professor’s spacious home, slips into a pair of his host’s comfy slippers and finds himself amazed by his sudden contentment.
There are supporting players here and there in the margins of “Man on the Train,” but not even third-billed Graham Greene — whose role as an eccentric getaway driver is little more than a walk-on — has much to do. Indeed, only Kate O’Toole, effortlessly conveying mature sensuality as the professor’s longtime paramour, manages to briefly dispel the overall impression that the pic is basically a sturdily constructed two-hander.
As the aged professor, a role played in Leconte’s original by Jean Rochefort, Sutherland deftly balances melancholy and self-mockery, along with a few welcome flashes of twinkly eyed bemusement. In many scenes, the veteran actor is so clearly relishing his role that his pleasure is highly contagious. Mullen provides the perfect counterpoint, playing the taciturn stranger as a hardboiled cynic who only gradually admits to his own sort of wistful longing, and seems pleasantly surprised by his willingness to be a sympathetic, even empathetic listener.
In a nice touch, the stranger (played by another actor-musician, Johnny Hallyday, in Leconte’s version) recalls being moved by the words of Charles Bukowksi, even though he doesn’t know who the poet is or what poem the words are from. The professor, it should be noted, seems more partial to e.e. cummings.
With the invaluable assistance of lenser Stefan Von Bjorn and production designer Jennifer Carroll, McGuckian makes shrewd use of the pic’s central location — the house, cluttered with books and bric-a-brac, which the professor shared with his now-deceased mother — to subtly reveal different aspects of her two lead characters. For one, the place is a museum for a life that hasn’t been lived so much as decorously maintained; for the other, it is a warm and inviting refuge that, alas, can’t truly be savored.