The Railway Man - movie review
Release date: January 10 2014
Starring: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Irvine, Stellan Skarsgard, Sam Reid, Tanroh Ishida, Hiroyuki Sanada
Director: Jonathan Teplitzky
What’s the story?
Former British army officer Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) finds love on the tracks when a chance encounter with Patti (Nicole Kidman) in a provincial railway carriage leads to romance and marriage. No sooner have they tied the knot, though, than the trauma of Eric’s years as a prisoner of war returns to haunt him, forcing Patti to seek out his old friend Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) and learn the dark truth that stops her husband from moving on with his life.
What did we think?
It may sound a bit of a slight to call a film old-fashioned, but The Railway Man is old-fashioned in the best possible way. That’s because the true-life story of Eric Lomax, a former prisoner of war who sought out the Japanese soldier who tortured him during World War II in later life, is a stirring tale of dignity, fortitude and reconciliation that simply wouldn’t work if it was told in a flashily modern manner.
To some viewers, Jonathan Teplitzky’s film might seem a touch sedate as it charts the blossoming love affair between Colin Firth’s diffident, bespectacled hero and Nicole Kidman’s prim, buttoned-down spinster. Gradually, however, the movie deepens and darkens, slowly revealing the trauma and torment that turned Firth’s character into the broken, closed-off, timetable-obsessed odd-bod who captures Kidman’s heart.
Yet for all the appeal of these quieter early stages, the film doesn’t really take off until it travels back in time to reveal what the young Eric Lomax went through after he was captured in Singapore in 1942. Put to work on the so-
"A powerful story of survival and redemption"
called Death Railway – a 400km stretch of track connecting Burma and Thailand that claimed more than 80,000 lives – he suffered unimaginable torment, not least when his captors found the secret radio he had been using to maintain morale among his fellow detainees.
Jeremy Irvine does such a bang-up job replicating Firth’s voice and mannerisms that it almost seems a shame to return to the present. But Teplitzky must in order to bring the tale to its dramatic conclusion: a far from happy reunion between Lomax and Nagase, the erstwhile interpreter cum torturer who, in an ironic twist of fate, makes his living now as a tour guide at what remains of the labour camp where the pair first met.
Lomax’s story, previously told in his autobiography and a 1995 TV drama with John Hurt, is a gift to any movie-maker. It is a pity, then, that screenwriters Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson feel the need to embellish it, first by bumping off a central character we had rather grown to like and later by having Firth go postal on the older Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada) in a most un-Darcy-like fashion.
The force of the narrative remains undimmed, though, thanks in part to the scenes shot in the actual jungle where the Death Railway once ran and others featuring convincing recreations in Queensland, Australia. Yet for many it will be the sequences shot on the Bo’Ness and Kinneil heritage railway in Scotland that strike the most resonant chords, Teplitzky evoking a bygone age of train travel you don’t have to be Michael Portillo to appreciate.
Comparisons will inevitably be made with trackside romance Brief Encounter, as well as David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai. The Railway Man isn’t really a match for either of those classics, but it’s surely saying something that it doesn’t look too out of place in their illustrious company.
Verdict: A powerful story of survival and redemption gets the respectful treatment it deserves in a film that shines new light on a grim WWII episode that has largely been forgotten.
What Sky Movies' Elliott Noble thought:
"An incredible tale of love, courage and humanity - and their opposites - the story of Eric Lomax sounds like it was dreamed up in a Hollywood melodrama workshop. But it’s true...
Budgetary constraints obviously prevent Teplitsky from delivering any of the spectacle of a Private Ryan or a Bridge on the River Kwai. But, blow by blow, the serial brutality makes its point. Terrible things can happen on a beautiful day."