British actors always seem a bit smug. Not sure why, but it’s probably because they are. Their pridefulness, however, melts away in The Railway Man, a drama set during and long after World War II and directed by Jonathan Teplitzky. Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman portray accessible and vulnerable characters, allowing the real-life story of British prisoner of war Eric Lomax to be front and center.
The first 30 minutes or so centers around the love story of Eric (Firth) and Patti (Kidman), who meet on a train in 1980. In true British style, their love blossoms not under the covers but over long conversations and tea. The chemistry between the actors comes through onscreen, especially considering that they’re middle-aged when they meet and are dealing with the conservative culture that still holds sway in Thatcherite Britain. Shortly after their wedding, Patti has her first glimpse into Eric’s troubled past when she finds him curled into the fetal position in their bedroom and rambling incoherently.
Intermittent flashbacks, sometimes extensive, throughout the film paint an unsettling picture of Eric’s younger self (Jeremy Irvine), who was captured in the 1942 surrender of British and Australian forces stationed in Singapore. His battalion of soldiers was unceremoniously crammed like cattle into a train and transported north to Burma, where they were put to forced labor on a treacherous railway project through the jungle. His time there is horrifyingly rendered in scenes of frequent beatings, starvation, and emaciated bodies. Patti works to unearth her husband’s history by talking to an old friend who was imprisoned with him.
The movie’s plot begins gaining traction when Patti begs Finley (Stellan Skarsgård) for a solution to her and her husband’s ordeal. Finley chooses to reveal to them the location of Eric’s Japanese tormentor, Takeshi Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada), who is living in Burma and giving tours of the same railway that Eric and his comrades worked and sometimes died to build. Eric arrives in Burma intending to murder his past tormentor but becomes conflicted when he finds himself face to face with a man who is also dealing with demons from the past.
Wars have not changed in their basic nature over the decades, but the way they’re portrayed in film certainly has. The Railway Man is not at all a comprehensive account of the larger war. There are only a handful of scenes depicting anything combat-related. The absence of large battle sequences works to maintain focus on the movie’s central narrative of the psychological damage that war inflicts on people. The final meeting between Eric and Takeshi is powerful. By the end of the final scene, Eric has gone through every emotion conceivable.
The Railway Man
Starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky. Written by Frank Boyce and Andy Patterson. Rated R.