The Railway Man (2013) / Drama-War

MPAA Rated: R for disturbing prisoner of war violence
Running Time: 116 min.

Cast: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Irvine, Stellan Skarsgard, Tanroh Ishida, Horiyuki Sanada, Sam Reid
Director: Jonathan Teplitzky
Screenplay: Andy Paterson, Frank Cottrell Boyce (based on the book by Eric Lomax)

Review published April 26, 2014

Based on a true story as recounted in Eric Lomax's 1995 autobiography of the same name, The Railway Man relates of how British Army signal officer Lomax (Firth, The King's Speech) survived adverse conditions in a Japanese POW encampment in Thailand during World War II, including grueling cruelty and torture, and the PTSD would affect his outlook and demeanor nearly 40 years later. The Japanese are determined to build a railroad (later dubbed the 'Death Railway') connecting Bangkok and Rangoon, through the impossible terrain of the jungles and mountains of Thailand, and they aim to use these POWs as their slave labor, including the engineers to design the massive undertaking.

The crux of the film concerns the demons that come back to haunt Lomax when it is discovered that Takashi Nagase (Sanada, The Wolverine), the interpreter who assisted with much of the torture, is still alive in their later years, and whether or not Lomax will confront him for past misdeeds, and how he might go about seeking justice. Meanwhile, a nearly broken Lomax has found a love with Patti Wallace (Kidman, Stoker), a Canadian nurse he meets, by coincidence, on a train, but his persistent flashbacks and nightmares to his agonizing past cause struggles with their relationship in the present that she has resolved to see him through.

There are some fine performances, particularly by Firth as the older Lomax (though a bit youthful to play a man in his 60s and 70s) and Jeremy Irvine (Great Expectations, War Horse), who does a very believable imitation of Firth, as the younger. Of all of the characterizations, Firth's feels the most ripe for lots of scenes of fiery emotion, but Lomax keeps his bottled-up demeanor throughout, which is apropos of the lifelong engineer, as he retreats into himself when trying to cope, unable to draw himself out for Patti to help him without an admonition to keep out of things that don't concern her. Plus, Firth has nearly made a career playing characters with repressed anguish, so it's another chance to do what he does best.  Kidman is fine, though her role is only a supporting one, and doesn't contain much character depth, other than being supportive, for her to truly shine.

Perhaps the best quality of The Railway Man comes through the stellar cinematography by Garry Phillips (Catch a Fire, Candy). The locale work and interiors are truly breathtaking, and makes the movie a sumptuous watch, even if the story elements fail to truly enthrall as they should.  If there's a reason why this very fine-looking film with a very talented cast doesn't make the leap from pretty good to a great one it is due to the script. Or, perhaps more accurately, the lack of cinematic appeal to the relatively low-key storyline.

Screenwriters Boyce (24 Hour Party People, Millions) and Paterson do try to punch up the narrative with quite a few sensationalized bits of drama (a suicide occurs in the film that never happened from a character that never existed) and a helping of creative license (no mention that Lomax meets Patti while he had still been married with children, or of Patti's own children from a previous marriage for that matter), but those moments feel like inauthentic, manipulative movie moments (the film ramps up the climax with murderous intent that was not prevalent in reality), exacerbated by overcooked dialogue that not even these capable thespians can spout without it feeling manufactured. While the locale work, tech specs and ensemble of well-known actors elevate the material, it sure does feel like a TV movie in most other respects.

While The Railway Man is a respectable effort, it's just not quite the stuff that makes for a truly compelling drama that hasn't been done better elsewhere, save for the events of the epilogue. Had the film been more about that aspect of it, and less about the root causes of hatred, perhaps we'd have something truly unique to separate this story from the plethora of World War II tales that have emerged over the years, especially Bridge on the River Kwai, which deals with the same subject in a fictionalized form. 

Lomax would die during the development phase of the production in 2012 at the age of 93.

-- Previously covered in an award-winning 1995 documentary on the events of the 1993 meeting between Lomax and Nagase.  "The Railway Man" was also adapted in 1995 for the British television documentary and docudrama series, "Everyman", with an episode called "Prisoners in Time". 

Qwipster's rating:

2014 Vince Leo