“The Railway Man,” starring Colin Firth, is based on the autobiography of Eric Lomax, a British POW who was forced as a young officer by the Japanese to work on the infamous “Death Railway” connecting Burma and Siam during World War II. Tortured mercilessly, he survived, psychologically scarred. Decades later, he discovered that Takashi Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada), the Japanese interpreter who had overseen the torture, was alive and acting as a tour guide at the same internment camp where Lomax once was held.
With his wife, Patti (Nicole Kidman), Lomax decides to seek out and confront Nagase. The film, directed by Jonathan Teplitzky and written by Andy Paterson and Frank Cottrell Boyce, is designed to put us in the place of its protagonist and ask, “What would you have done?”
Lomax’s well-publicized real-life confrontation – which was also the subject of a documentary and a television drama – resulted improbably in forgiveness and friendship. The film rises or falls on the believability of that reconciliation. Much of the time it falters.
Firth is very good at playing racked men of high principle. He’s so well cast as Lomax that, at times, he’s almost too perfect in the role. He’s still the best thing about the movie. As an actor, Firth can sometimes seem a bit bland and hollowed out, but as Lomax, all that soulful vacancy makes sense. We can see how this man’s passion for trains and train schedules (a passion he carried from boyhood) became a cruel irony when he was yoked to the “Death Railway.” And yet he retained that love into his adulthood after the war. It’s what keeps him sane.
It is on a train in Scotland that he first meets Patti and falls instantly in love. She becomes his redeemer. With the help of a fellow POW survivor played by Stellan Skarsgaard, she breaks through his code of silence about the war’s horrors. Patti’s is a thankless role, though – she does a lot of standing by her man, but we never see much of her own torments. She’s St. Patti.
About half the film is framed as wartime flashbacks from the Firth scenes set in the 1980s (though they seem to be set in the 1940s). Jeremy Irvine (from “War Horse”) plays the young Lomax with a staunch affability even in the most excruciating situations. When the Japanese discover that the young officer has constructed a radio receiver out of pilfered parts, they torture him so mercilessly, including waterboarding, that I couldn’t help wondering why the filmmakers didn’t give Firth a limp or a scar or something to mark him. Lomax as an adult is as unscathed on the outside as he isn’t on the inside.
Teplitzky has deliberately made an old-fashioned movie on the assumption, I suppose, that anything newfangled would detract from the redemption scenario. (It’s no accident that the 1980s scenes look 40 years out of step.) But old-fashioned here too often comes across as staid, even in the internment camp scenes, with their tastefully composed shots of brutality. Despite the subject matter, there is nothing jolting about the horrors in “The Railway Man.” Perhaps the filmmakers believed that if the flashbacks were even more gruesome, we would not believe Lomax’s ultimate act of reconciliation.
They’ve rigged the game. Love beats hate. It’s a nice sentiment – even a necessary one. To convincingly dramatize it, however, many more psychological layers are needed than this film provides. Grade: B- (Rated R for disturbing prisoner-of-war violence.)