The story of Eric Lomax began as one of great misfortune, only to became extraordinary because of the forgiving choices of the man at its heart. A British signals officer in WWII, Lomax was taken as a prisoner of war bythe Japanese during the fall of Singapore in 1942. In addition to enduring torture at the hands of his captors, Lomax was also pressed into service building the Burma Railway, the same one that featured prominently in David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai. What sets the story apart is not what Lomax was subject to—tragically, over 60,000 POWs were forced into similar situations on the “Death Railway”—but how he reacted years later when confronted with the possibility of meeting one of the men chiefly responsible for his misery. Based off Lomax’s own poignant memoir, Jonathan Teplitzky’s The Railway Man does its best to honor the unique compassion of the account without succumbing to schmaltz or banal arthouse prestige. The success rate here is a little better than half.
Teplitzky takes a time-jumping script by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson and crafts a handsome but occasionally flat picture, one that resides somewhere in the gap between old-fashioned and stylistically stale. The structure itself is designed so as to initially hide the shape of Lomax’s (Colin Firth) ordeal, breaking the film into essentially three smaller pictures, a picaresque and charming Merchant Ivory style romance with wife Patti (Nicole Kidman), a brutal and harrowing war flick, and finally a tense bit of hopeful, life-affirming drama. The fractured nature of the film undoes some of the organic interest that resides in Lomax’s written account, replacing it with tropes more worn-down than the returning veteran’s psyche. Never as bold as it needs to be, The Railway Man tiptoes suspiciously around its redemptive aspects and finally seems hell-bent on forcing them down with mawkish sentiment.
What saves the day—and a good chunk of the film—is the work of Teplitzky and his actors, particularly Firth, who was no doubt snagged because of his penchant for playing affable but internally fractured Brits faithfully sallying forth through adversity. Firth plays the elder Lomax, who meets his wife on a train—Nicole Kidman, unconvincing at playing mundane– during the 1980’s and with her help, eventually discovers that the architect of his misfortune, an aged officer named Nagaste (Hiroyoku Sanada), is working as a tour guide at a Japanese museum. Along the way there’s a camaraderie with fellow ex-soldier Findlay, embodied with existential fragility by Stellan Skarsgaard. The flashbacks to the war camp see War Horse’s Jeremy Levine and Tanroh Ishida as the younger versions of Lomax and Nagaste, respectively, and their energy adds an element of taut urgency to the scenes set decades later.
Through the early chapters, Firth’s Lomax is a nervy ball of troubles masked beneath wistful mirth, his interactions with an unconvincing Nicole Kidman full of yearning and soul. Later, the depth of his hurt is unfurled—or is it unfirthed?—and by the time Lomax is making his way across the spaces of the museum hall, headed for Nagaste, the murderous shadow on the actor’s face absolutely convinces. What happens after, regardless of the contrived uplift accompanying it, is no less real and palpable. When the film itself flinches, Firth charges on, seeking out each ruptured wound with anguish and discovering each small measure of healing with disbelieving wonder. Sanada gives a powerfully subtle and complex turn as the older Nagaste, channeling those same tumultuous overtures that drove films like The Twilight Samurai.
There’s a sad kind of irony to movies like The Railway Man. They intend to dramatize stories that work off an organic sense of human behavior, best when they are hinged in truth and given to the messy, erratic verve of real life. Unfortunately, it’s this very kind of human interest drama that usually run off cliches, overused emotional beats, and a false sense of prestige. Teplitzky, whose other films are less mainstream and quirkier than this one, has found himself saddled with a great story and an Oscar-bait delivery package. He does what he can with the actors and the individual scenes, some of which are quite exciting and effective, but just as the bigger picture comes into focus, Railway loses the transmission and retreats to conformity.
In the end, that lack of emphasis and honest, fearless emotion is a real shame, because the performances are so good and the gathering trajectory of what Teplitzky wants to achieve is compelling. I fully expected to reject that last movement, that sees two wartime enemies seriously address each other in the wake of so much hurt. If nothing else, The Railway Man earns its final, poignant tears, that come at the end of a movie that wants to play fair more than it actually does.
The Railway Man is now playing in limited release.