NOTE: This review was originally published on September 8, 2013 after I saw The Railway Man at the Toronto Film Festival. I am reprinting it today as it hits theaters this weekend.
Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky and based on the autobiography of Eric Lomax, the man behind the nickname of the title character, The Railway Man is yet another traditionally told period piece, elevated due to a wonderfully effective story and strong lead performances from Colin Firth and Jeremy Irvine.
We’re first introduced to Lomax (Firth) as a middle-aged British Army veteran of World War II. He’s obviously a quiet man, but there are no visible physical or emotional scars, and for the time being his life is about to take a turn for the better. A chance meeting with a woman, Patti (Nicole Kidman), aboard a train results in love at first sight. The two eventually marry and find a house together, but the horrors of war can’t elude him forever.
It’s never quite clear if Eric told Patti about his time in the British Army, but she’s soon made well aware of the damage it has left on his psyche and it’s only getting worse as he mistakes a bill collector for the Japanese translator (Tanroh Ishida) that tortured him as a prisoner of war at a Japanese labor camp. Lomax attacks the bill collector with a box cutter.
The film explores Eric’s journey toward revenge, retribution and reconciliation while also telling his story as a young British officer. As a result, the first two thirds of the film are a little slow and predictable, but the third act brings everything together in effectively dramatic fashion.
As the layers of The Railway Man are peeled away there are only two inevitable conclusions and, at first, neither seem as if they will actually work. One would be too horrific and the other too melodramatic, but in actuality, the finale becomes the best part of the film, elegantly told and respectful of both the subject and not at all pandering to the audience.
Young Lomax is played by Jeremy Irvine (War Horse), a perfect choice physically as well as from a performance stand point. So much depends on both Firth and Irvine finding some measure of kinship so the film never loses momentum when it flashes backward and forward, and once Irvine eventually hands off to Firth for good there isn’t so much as a hiccup.
Kidman’s role along with Stellan Skarsgard‘s is rather small, but both characters serve as inspiration for Lomax and conduits into the telling of his story. Hiroyuki Sanada (The Last Samurai, The Wolverine) is also a strong performer for the short time he’s seen on screen, but to say much more would be to give away some of the film’s secrets, which are better left learned first hand.
Teplitzky’s directorial career is still quite young. He has some work under his belt, most notably 2011’s Burning Man, and he proves here he can handle a larger narrative, but this is still a story told without much risk. For lack of a better description, it’s safe and small.
Some stories deserve their time on screen and there’s nothing wrong with a well-told, directed and acted story that manages to move and enlighten us and I’m not sure The Railway Man could have been told any better. It obviously comes with years of World War II stories in front of it and serves as something of a true story cousin to 1957’s The Bridge on the River Kwai.
As one of the characters says in the film, “war leaves a mark”, and the mark the second World War left on the whole of humanity is one that will never wear away. What’s truly amazing are the number of stories that continue to come out of such a dark period in human history, many that can actually serve as uplifting just as this one does.