Colin Firth's 'The Railway Man' stays mostly on track

Handout photo

Handout photo

Rating

3 Stars3/5

Liz Braun, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:29 PM ET

The true story brought to life in The Railway Man is so compelling that it cannot be obscured by clumsy filmmaking.

British officer Eric Lomax was tortured by the Japanese during WWII and tortured thereafter by his memories of the experience; his 1995 bestselling memoir was an account of his journey to make sense of the incidents and escape the trauma of his past. The road to healing involved encountering, some 50 years later, his chief Japanese tormentor.

As a film, The Railway Man moves back and forth between the war and the recent past. Colin Firth plays Lomax as an emotionally paralyzed middle-aged man, and Jeremy Irvine plays the 'young' Lomax taking part in WWII.

The film opens with scenes from the 1980s, when Lomax meets the beautiful Patti Wallace (Nicole Kidman) on a train. They fall in love and marry, but it quickly becomes evident that Lomax is still suffering from the torture he endured during the war. He has hideous nightmares. He can't talk to Patti about what happened. His day-to-day life is a shambles and he's an emotional wreck.

The story now moves back in time to show what happened to Lomax and his mates during the war. They are captured by the Japanese in 1942 and transported to Burma to be part of the slave labour used to build the Burma-Siam railway. The conditions under which they work are enough to kill some of the prisoners of war outright; Lomax has increasingly violent encounters with a translator/torturer named Takashi Nagase (played by Tanroh Ishida during the 1940s, and by Hiroyuki Sanada in the 1990s.)

Lomax is subjected to various atrocities and is broken in body and soul when the war finally ends.

Back in England and back in the present day, he continues on a downward spiral until he sees a newspaper clipping about Takashi Nagase. Lomax is astonished to find that his nemesis is still alive and sets about planning revenge. Their eventual encounter in Thailand has surprising consequences for both men.

The Railway Man, while fully engaging, never quite knits together past and present — maybe not surprising when two actors play the same character. Scenes set in the prisoner of war camp feel inadequate in the area of emotional momentum, and you're always aware that you're watching a movie. In present-day scenes, emotion is often underlined by presenting both Firth and Kidman in relentless close-up, which eventually takes you out of the film. And Kidman, like Stellan Starsgard (who plays one of Lomax' surviving war buddies) doesn't have nearly enough to do.

The Railway Man is a story huge in scope, and there may be too much in the way of incident and emotion to convey in a two hour picture.

The end result is a film that is sometimes flat and occasionally technically clunky. Luckily, the drama of the tale and the powerful performances, particularly from Firth and Hiroyuki Sanada, are enough to keep you watching.

You'll want to bring Kleenex.

Twitter: @LizBraunSun

liz.braun@sunmedia.ca

 


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