Railroads reek of romance, of mystery, of an uncertain future and a vague past. When watching a train trundle by, one is never quite sure where it’s been or where it’s going, but, somehow, its existence seems permanent and meaningful. It has stories to tell.
Railway enthusiast Eric Lomax had stories to tell too, though it took him almost 40 years to tell them. The British officer was taken prisoner during World War II and forced into brutal labor on, ironically, a railroad – specifically the Burma Railway in Thailand, also the setting of David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai. Lomax kept the horrors mostly secret until the early 1980s when his wife and a fellow ex-soldier encouraged him to confront his past.
The resulting autobiography is the basis for The Railway Man, directed by Jonathan Teplitzky and starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, with a screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Patterson. Though it takes liberties with the facts, including removing Lomax’s first wife and children, it captures the story’s essence, which is that of a man consumed by his past and still waging a war within himself.
“I don’t think I can be put back together,” Lomax (Firth) tells his wife, Patti (Kidman), shortly after their wedding. Yet she knows that for their young marriage to have a future, her husband must mend. Her response: “Why don’t we try, together?”
The film fits easily into three acts, the first being the couple’s opportune meeting on a train. During this serendipitous scene, Lomax references the classic movie Brief Encounter (also directed by Lean), in which strangers meet under similar circumstances, and, indeed, for a time, The Railway Man has that same feel. However, this encounter seems too brief, robbing us of the chance to really understand either character. Yes, we eventually get to know Lomax, but Patti remains a shadow.
The second and third acts are darker and involve flashbacks to a younger Lomax, played nicely by Jeremy Irvine, whom we accept as the 20-something Lomax. We slowly get to see not just the state of Lomax’s psyche, but the agony millions of soldiers experienced in the jungles of the Pacific Theater.
So when Lomax attempts to heal himself and even perhaps forgive his torturers, his efforts represent not just one man’s struggles but those of all prisoners of war.
The Railway Man is uneven, choppy and unimpactful at times, but the slow pacing and melodrama work fairly well and build to an interesting, competent climax. Firth, as a haunted man, is himself haunting, but Kidman and Stellan Skarsgård (as Lomax’s soldier friend), though both good, don’t have much to do. The juicier jobs go to Hiroyuki Sanada and Tanroh Ishida, as the older and younger versions of the main Japanese soldier, and they make the most of them.
“You should be ashamed to be alive,” Lomax’s captor tells him, referencing the Japanese code of honor that prefers suicide to imprisonment. But Lomax wasn’t ashamed, and his survival – both physical and emotional – became his badges of honor.
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