The Railway Man tells the story of Eric Lomax, a former British Army officer who was forced into a labour camp to help build the Burma Railway for the Japanese army during World War II.
The film opens decades after the war, when Eric (Colin Firth) meets Patti (Nicole Kidman). They fall in love and get married, and it’s not long after that Patti discovers how deeply traumatized her husband is by his experiences as a P.O.W. As Eric’s behaviour becomes more volatile, Patti turns to his best friend and fellow officer Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård), who reluctantly tells her what happened to them. Hoping to bring some peace of mind to his friend, Finlay decides to tell Eric that the Japanese officer who tortured him at the camp is still alive.
The Railway Man is based on Lomax’s bestselling memoir of the same name. This story is one that deserves to be told, so it’s unfortunate that Teplitzky’s adaptation falls short of the compelling source material.
Fortunately it features some strong performances from its cast to keep things interesting. Kidman’s performance as Patti is nuanced but effective, which helps when her character is given little room to leave much of an impression. Stellan Skarsgård gives a grim but endearing portrayal of Finlay. Jeremy Irvine delivers a strong performance as the younger Eric, but it is Colin Firth’s work that carries the film, and he demonstrates here once again how he is more than capable of playing the leading man. It’s always exciting to see Firth in darker roles; Eric is a haunted man, but Firth makes you feel more than just sorry for him.
The score is beautiful, and there’s some gorgeous cinematography throughout. There’s one scene that depicts a violent act in a very effective way: all we see of it are the reactions on the faces of the bystanders, and not the act itself. But otherwise, for all of its polish the storytelling is kind of bland. Not bad, just middle-of-the-road. The film moves at a good pace, but even then it’s easy to guess where it’s going.
This retelling of Lomax’s story makes it feel less unique than it really is. Its complexity and richness is brushed aside in favour of a more digestible kind of morality tale that Hollywood loves to rehash. It does it well, but there isn’t much that’s fresh about it.