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An old-fashioned war drama stuffed into a cumbersomely choppy time structure, The Railway Man is well-acted and handsomely produced, but its honorable intentions are not matched by sustained emotional impact or psychological suspense. The film boasts committed work from Colin Firth as a British train enthusiast profoundly damaged by his experience as a prisoner of war, along with tearful support from Nicole Kidman as his wife. But despite those deluxe elements, it never quite transcends its stodgy approach.
Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky (Burning Man), the co-production from Australia and the U.K. superficially recalls Bruce Beresford’s Paradise Road in its setting against the backdrop of the fall of Singapore in 1942. Screenwriters Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson bring more timid reverence than inspiration to their adaptation of former British Army officer Eric Lomax’s memoir. Dropping in references to Brief Encounter and The Bridge on the River Kwai merely underlines how far short they fall of their classic models.
The most striking aspect of Lomax’s story is the unexpected friendship that developed after the late war veteran (he died at age 93 in Oct. 2012) finally found peace with his demons. That detail is related as a coda here, whereas it might have made for a more inventive starting point.
Instead the film begins as Eric (Firth), with his dying breath, recites a poem that never really acquires much significance. From there, the action shifts back roughly three decades to 1980 in a veterans club in Berwick-upon-Tweed. A lifelong railway enthusiast, Eric tells his cronies of a recent encounter on a train with a woman so sweet and unguarded that he fell instantly in love. With no further ado, that woman, Patti (Kidman), becomes his wife. But Eric’s nightmares return immediately after the wedding, ushering in the specter of Nagase (Tanroh Ishida), the young Imperial Japanese Army officer who tortured him during World War II.
All that fussy time-jumping seems an untidy way into Lomax’s remarkable saga of suffering, honor, reconciliation and forgiveness, robbing the story of dramatic urgency
Eric’s erratic behavior and inability to talk about the ordeal puts a heavy burden on his marriage to Patti. This prompts her to approach another former P.O.W., Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard), who reluctantly breaks their code of silence. Knowing little more than the basics of their capture when Japanese forces occupied Singapore, Patti learns that they were sent to the jungles of Thailand to work on what was then known as the Burma-Siam railway.
Spared from the backbreaking labor that resulted in the death of thousands of soldiers, Eric, Finlay and their engineering unit were forced to put their skills to work at the service of the Japanese. He used pilfered parts to build a secret radio receiver, spreading hope among the men with news of far-away victories by the British and American forces. But when the radio was discovered, he was subjected to inhuman treatment — vicious beatings, interrogation and torture.
The dramatic turning point from past back to present comes when Finlay learns that Nagase somehow escaped death as a war criminal and is conducting guided tours of the Kempeitai internment camp where they were held. That discovery yields more interesting developments, with strong work from Hiroyuki Sanada as the older Nagase in the inevitable confrontations. But with all its busy back-and-forth at the expense of compelling psychological insight, the lumbering script and direction fail to give the outcome the power it deserves.
Firth holds nothing back in his painful depiction of stiff-upper-lip moral fiber at war against mental instability and festering hatred. The actor does everything that’s required of him, and yet Eric remains an emotionally remote protagonist for such a harrowing story. Still, his portrayal of PTSD will resonate with anyone touched by war and its fallout. Jeremy Irvine (War Horse) also gives it his all as the young Eric.
While she’s lovely in her early scenes, Kidman’s role becomes a thankless one, called upon largely just to react with moist-eyed, agonized concern. Given that Eric’s ultimate course of action is driven as much by love as by the need to close an awful chapter in his life, their relationship could have benefited from more establishing screen time. It’s no doubt intended, but those 1980 scenes have an awfully starchy feel that belongs to an earlier period.
Cinematographer Garry Phillips adopts a muted look for the English and Scottish locations and sweltering hot light and scorched earth tones for the Thai jungle scenes. (Studio work was done in Queensland, Australia.) And Phillips makes nifty use of a Hitchcockian reverse tracking shot in one scene. Production and costume design are solid in recreating the WWII scenes, and if 1980 looks more like 1970 or earlier, that might actually have been the case in the out-of-the-way northern U.K. settings. Composer David Hirschfelder contributes a robust dramatic score that conveys more emotion than anything onscreen in this nobly inert film.
In an era of truly visceral war movies like those of Kathryn Bigelow, The Railway Man feels like an antiquated prestige miniseries.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentation)
Cast: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Irvine, Stellan Skarsgard, Sam Reid, Tanroh Ishida, Hiroyuki Sanada
Production companies: Andy Paterson, Pictures in Paradise, Trinifold Production, in association with Davis Films, Latitude Media
Director: Jonathan Teplitzky
Screenwriter: Frank Cottrell Boyce, Andy Paterson, based on the memoir by Eric Lomax
Producers: Andy Paterson, Chris Brown, Bill Curbishley
Executive producers: Claudia Bluemhuber, Ian Hutchinson, Zygi Kamasa, Nick Manzi, Daria Jovicic, Anand Tucker
Director of photography: Garry Phillips
Production designer: Steven Jones-Evans
Music: David Hirschfelder
Costume designer: Lizzy Gardiner
Editor: Martin Connor
Sales: Lionsgate International/CAA
No rating, 116 minutes.
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