The Railway Man

The Railway Man photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgEric Lomax was a British Army officer who was sent to a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in 1942. He subsequently wrote a book entitled The Railway Man. In it he recounted his horrific persecution on the Thai-Burma Railway during World War II.  The same setting detailed in the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai. Remember that film? If not, then go rent that profoundly better movie instead. Seriously. Just go. I command you.

The Railway Man begins in 1980 where Scottish World War II veteran Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) meets pretty Patti Wallace (Nicole Kidman) for the first time on a train in a scene that is meant to be delightfully adorable. Kidman does what she can.  However given her stature, we keep expecting the star to become a more integral part. The underwritten role would’ve benefited form a lesser known actress because it’s more of a accessory than a fully formed individual. They both settle into a comfortable existence together as a married couple, but wouldn’t you know it, trouble looms on the horizon. As biopics are often wont to do, this idyllic life is only presented to contrast with the real point of the story. You see Lomax is tortured by repressed memories of his time spent as a Japanese POW. Cue the flashback sequence, a dependable device to be sure, but the bane of every manufactured biopic that has ever been made.

The Railway Man suffers from erratic pacing. These flashback sequences comprise the bulk of the second half of the film. They’re set at the POW camp with actor Jeremy Irvine portraying Lomax as a younger man. He does what he can with a pretty sizeable role, but there is a disconnect. The disturbing events of the past juxtaposed with the placid view of him as an adult don’t jive well. The back and forth is jarring and doesn’t flow into the overall narrative. He builds a radio which the Japanese Army believes he is using to transmit signals. As a result, he must endure the horrors of an abusive prison which include waterboarding.  I get that it’s told from Lomax’s POV but his captors might as well be cardboard cutouts because they have no depth or personality. They merely serve one purpose, to be the antagonists from which Lomax must suffer.   They’re somewhat given a face in actor Tanroh Ishida as Takashi Nagase, an interpreter.

Languidly paced biography is handsomely mounted and well acted but this period melodrama is inert. Colin Firth exemplifies respectful reverence in his depiction of Eric Lomax as a soft genteel man haunted by the past. His posttraumatic stress disorder continues to weigh on him. That sets the stage for the climax. Lomax learns that that Takashi Nagase is now employed as a tour guide. Actor Hiroyuki Sanada is him as an adult. The Japanese soldier who oversaw his torture in 1942 now works at a museum on the very grounds of the prison camp where the two men first met. In an effort to reconcile his feelings, Lomax re-visits Burma several decades later. On paper the developments sound fascinating, but what is undoubtedly an important account is given a very conventional treatment. The film builds to this meeting as a highlight of sorts. Will he find peace or revenge? Colin Firth’s portrait of restrained passivity is both admirable and frustrating. The biopic engages at irregular intervals but it’s so carefully modulated that it feels like an artifact from a bygone era. The Railway Man is ultimately a positive tale and I suppose it gets some sympathy points for that.


13 Responses to “The Railway Man”

  1. Good review Mark. The performances were good, but the story did get a tad bit hokey by the end. Guess it was supposed to be, since that’s how history worked itself out, but still, there was a better ending to be had here.


    • Colin Firth is always good and he’s supported by a noble cast. I struggled between 2 ½ and 3 stars . It’s well meaning and I suppose if that was enough I would’ve recommended it. Unfortunately it’s not in my book.


  2. I liked your review and agree with it. It had bright moments but mostly felt frustration while watching it. I did think it interesting that the two advesaries became friends after the war. Very unusual.


  3. Nice review, I’m dubious about it to be honest. I might wait for a DVD rental instead.


  4. I may watch this on DVD later. I was intrigued because I’m a fan of Nicole Kidman, but if she’s under used, then meh. The story seemed interesting too. Very well written, as always.


  5. The Railway Man suffers in terms of direction and script, unable to decide what kind of film it wants to be. For all the history the film explores, it has a lot of trouble dealing with it and often feels empty at times. Glad you weren’t a fan of it either.


  6. I am quite sure by this point that I am skipping this one. Nicole Kidman is usually someone who draws me to films. She is quite good and despite disappearing from the mainstream world of films is doing great things quietly. You say she is underused? Another detour away from this dull looking film!


    • I think Nicole Kidman is one of the greatest actresses of her generation. Have you ever seen Rabbit Hole? It was a drama she made in 2010. She gives a heartbreakingly sad performance. I think people forget about this film even though she got a Best Actress Oscar nomination for it.


      • Not yet actually. I keep forgetting to rent/purchase it! I was originally going to see it for Miles Teller since I learned that he can really act in The Spectacular Now. However, Kidman gives me more reason too. She is great in Stoker as well which is only decent due to the performances and cinematography!


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