'The Railway Man': Colin Firth portrays a former POW who confronts an enemy

Firth plays real-life figure Eric Lomax, a British POW who was kept prisoner by the Japanese and decades later seeks out the man who oversaw his torture.

The Weinstein Company
Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) was a real-life British officer who was tortured by the Japanese in World War II.

“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.)

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to 'The Railway Man': Colin Firth portrays a former POW who confronts an enemy
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today