An inspiring story lies and sometimes shimmers at the heart of “The Railway Man,” a fact-based drama about a British war-crimes survivor whose quest for revenge against his tormenter develops into an ability to forgive. But an excess of extreme flashbacks and a shortage of vigor prevent the film from making a big impact.
Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky and adapted from the title subject’s autobiography, the film dramatizes the journey of Eric Lomax (Colin Firth), who, as a British prisoner in a Japanese labor camp during World War II, was tortured and forced to toil on the notorious Death Railway (linking Thailand and Burma).
Nearly 40 years later, still broken from the experience, Lomax decided to confront his wartime tormenter.
Combining an old-fashioned genteelness with contemporary themes such as truth-and-reconciliation dynamics and post-traumatic stress, the film presents the middle-aged Lomax as a lifelong railway enthusiast and shattered man with an obsessive interest in timetables.
On a train in 1980, he meets a nurse named Patti (Nicole Kidman), who likes his geeky charm. They fall in love and marry, but their relationship suffers from the wartime horrors still haunting Lomax.
The revenge element takes hold when Lomax’s friend Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard), also a damaged ex-POW, informs Lomax that the labor camp’s top torturer, Nagase Takashi (Hiroyuki Sanada), is alive and working in a war museum. Lomax visits Nagase with the aim of possibly killing him. But their hostile encounter slowly results in dialogue that brings out the humanity in both men.
Teplitzky, whose credits include the trauma-themed Australian drama “Burning Man,” delivers some nuggets. Scenes of the POWs listening to news from home on a plot-pivotal secret radio sparkle, for starters.
Firth conveys with exquisite subtlely his character’s underlying suffering and quiet dignity. The interior struggle that transpires between Lomax’s baser and nobler instincts results in compelling tension.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers employ a frustrating amount of stock devices, most significantly the harrowing flashback. These sequences, including intensely depicted beatings and water boarding, overwhelm the primary drama, which already suffers from low-throttle impact.
They also come at the expense of character-driven material.
Kidman can do little with the worried-wife role of Patti, and Skarsgard’s Finlay exists largely to represent the old-style code-of-silence approach to trauma survival. Nagase symbolizes truth and reconciliation.
Such shortcomings cause the dramatic payoffs to be tear-jerky rather than genuinely moving. The real-life Lomax, who died in 2012, and all of these able actors deserve better.
Jeremy Irvine, as the 1940s Lomax, deserves special mention. In addition to physically suggesting a young Firth, the actor impressively captures the suppressed spirit Firth occasionally reveals in the character.
The Railway Man
Starring Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgard, Hiroyuki Sanada
Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, Andy Paterson
Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky
Running time 1 hour, 48 minutes