To women and devoted Austenites Colin Firth will always be Mr. Darcy. For others he’ll be the man who overcame a stammer (in character as King George VI) to win an Academy Award. Yet for this member of the “Brit Pack,” which also includes Tim Roth, Bruce Payne (Passenger 57) and Paul McGann (Withnail and I), Firth’s ascension as a renowned thespian has been slow to develop. He had recently turned fifty when he won the top acting prize for The King’s Speech, but had done remarkable turns prior in little seen films like HBO’s Conspiracy and Atom Egoyan’s Where the Truth Lies. He even managed to come out of a dreadful Amanda Bynes teen comedy (What a Girl Wants) unscathed. As traumatic as that experience may have been, it’s small compared to portraying a man that is spiritually tormented due to the depravity he endured as a World War II prisoner of war.
The Railway Man tells the true story of a POW that has been emotionally stunted as the result of his experiences in wartime. Living a lonely, isolated life, Eric Lomax (Firth) has spent decades trying to repress the memories that haunt him. A bifocaled bookish man with a love for everything trains – schedules, history, et al. – Eric’s fortunes change when he has a “meet cute” moment on a train bound to Edinburgh, Scotland with Patti, a woman that bears a striking resemblance to Nicole Kidman.
She (Kidman) is taken aback by Eric and his pre-Wikipedia knowledge of miscellaneous facts about villages and landmarks they pass. This includes referencing the railway station that served as the filming location for David Lean’s Brief Encounter. The two meet as strangers but depart with a longing that is soon placated when he runs into her again on a homebound train days later. This first act plays like a short romance that ends happily ever after. Then after Eric and Patti marry and settle into domestic life, the honeymoon period essentially ends when Eric begins to have vivid hallucinations tied to time spent in a Japanese labor camp during the Second World War. Patti with little knowledge of his condition – what is commonly referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder today – turns to his friend, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard), searching for answers.
Through Finlay’s revelations about the war, both Patti and we learn that Eric (played in flashbacks by War Horse‘s Jeremy Irvine) was a communications officer captured by the Japanese in Singapore, later forced to build the Thailand-Burma Railway. Eric, Finlay and a few other soldiers mounted a small resistance by fashioning together a radio to procure any news of the war going on around the globe. After the radio is discovered, Eric volunteers himself as the fall guy and is thusly subjected to torture observed and facilitated by young translator Takashi (Tanroh Ishida).
When Finlay urges Eric to track down Takashi and confront him the third act turns into a low-key-will-he-or-won’t-he-thriller-type scenario. It’s a bunch of posturing between Eric and Takashi (played in the 1980s present by Hiroyuki Sanada) and their interpretations of what took place in the prison camp. Yo-yoing between the past and the present director Jonathan Teplitzky paints a vivid portrait detailing Eric’s suffering at the hands of the Japanese. The torture sequences are hard to watch but help serve in providing the framework for the fear that continues to fester in Eric decades afterwards, and the context to how episode after episode of fractured limbs and waterboarding could break his spirit, which is much worse than the physical act of violence.
The Railway Man is an adaptation of Eric Lomax’s 1995 memoir, where he details his time as a FEPOW (Far East Prisoner of War) and the horrors experienced while being tortured by the Kempeitai, the Japanese military police, in Burma. As an assurance that the story is authentic, a “based on a true story” stamp appears underneath the film’s title. Granted the filmmakers omit the fact that Eric was married at the time he encountered Patti on the train, and as a narrative the story seems to miss the mark on their relationship; there is neither hint nor suggestion that Eric’s trauma was an occurrence during courtship. When his mummified meltdown occurs one has to wonder if Patti had seen any warning signs.
Both Teplitzky and the actors tell the story in a serious yet safe manner. As such there is a lack of emotion. While it doesn’t become a schmaltzy sentimental affair, the picture is difficult in evoking much in the way of feeling. This may have been the result of talented actors being limited by a bland adaptation from Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson. Though it is quite the high-wire act, trying to balance the darkly savage with healing catharsis.
Colin Firth is in solid form as Eric Lomax, who articulates most of his feelings with long stares, allowing us to share in his isolation. Also commendable are Irvine and Ishida in the flashback scenes. The theme of guilt and forgiveness is handled with ease, which will be easy for viewers (as will the postscript montage of what happened to these men later in life), giving proper closure to the proceedings. Still, aside from Firth’s performance, everything comes across stilted and perfunctory.
A quick film related note about The Railway Man and its connections to director David Lean. While Eric Lomax makes reference to Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) while chatting with Patti in a first-class train car, Lean would go on to direct The Bridge Over the River Kwai (1957), a fictional epic about the same Burma Railway that Lomax would help build.
Director: Jonathan Teplitzky
Writer(s): Frank Cottrell Boyce, Andy Paterson, Based on the book by Eric Lomax
Notable Cast: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Jeremy Irvine, Stellan Skarsgard