The Railway Man
"The Railway Man" opens with a shot of a bridge - the looming Forth Bridge in Scotland with Jeremy Irvine (as the title character Eric Lomax) walking beneath it in a British military uniform, circa the Second World War. That the image brings to mind another famous bridge, the one over the River Kwai in David Lean’s famous war drama, may not just be coincidental: going into this film you will likely know that this drama pivots between Scotland in the 1980s and the Burmese jungle during World War Two, so that film, which deals with British POWs in a Japanese internment camp, comes to mind.
Though Jonathan Teplitzky’s film, based on the real-life story of Eric Lomax, (which has already spawned a book, documentary and television film), isn’t epic in scope. Instead, it focuses on Lomax’s harrowing experiences as a POW and its long-lasting effects: some thirty-five years later he’s a hollow man still haunted by the torture he experienced at the hands of his Japanese captors, specifically a translator working for a Japanese Intelligence unit, that attempt to break Lomax after discovery a radio he helped build.
That Lomax is played by Peter Firth is certainly a plus. Firth embodies the stiff-upper-lip resolve of a man unable to deal with the memories that have left him an emotional cripple. He speaks volumes with his sorrowful gaze that intrigue the viewer into wondering just why he’s so damaged; and it isn’t too long before the handsomely photographed flashback sequences provide the answer.
In these Lomax is played with verve and resolve by Jeremy Irvine, the lanky, personable actor who went through similar emotional terrain in the World War I drama "The War Horse." Here he undergoes some pretty horrific torture with such verisimilitude that you’ll likely wince. He’s beaten, caged and waterboarded in some effectively realized sequences that give meaning to the pain in Firth’s gaze. Irvine’s such a talented find that it would be nice to see him out of uniform in another film.
The crux of Lomax’s story turns out to be how he confronts his torturer when, years later, he learns that the translator is a tour guide at the internment camp, which has become a museum. What happens there has been well-reported over the years - you will likely not remember it at first, but as the story moves towards its emotional conclusion, you likely will recall it from an NPR report or CNN feature. Spoiler alert: he goes to Thailand to kill the translator (Takashi Nagase played by Tanroh Ishida), but ends up forgiving him and becoming his friend.
Teplitzky does a terrific job capturing the camaraderie of the British troops and the horror they endure in this tropical setting. The images of the men shrunken by abuse and starvation haunt after leaving the theater and there’s an urgency to these flashback sequences. Less successful are the contemporary sequences. Nicole Kidman, who plays the nurse that becomes Lomax’s wife, acts as the film’s calming center, but doesn’t bring much personality to what is essentially a cliched role of the caring partner. And the sequences where she quizzes Firth’s comrades serve the purpose of furthering the plot, but feel synthetic. "The Railway Man" attempts to show the power of love in the healing process, but that love never feels earned, just well-cast, which mitigates the power of the message.
This may be why this film is coming out in April and not during award season. With its A-list leads (Oscar-winners Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman), serious theme (war crimes and redemption) and art house production values, it would seem to have been the kind of movie the Weinstein Company would get behind for prestige sake alone. They didn’t and Teplitzky’s film is getting an early spring release, which means it will likely be forgotten in a few weeks.