Gerne: Biography, Drama
Directed by: Jonathan Teplitzky
Starring: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Stellan Skarsgard
This is not the first time Eric Lomax’s account of suffering and redemption on the infamous Thai-Burmese railway has been told, but it’s the highest profile version to date. Headlined by major stars, this is a risk free encounter crying out to be granted middle-brow respectability. There’s the historical setting, even better that it’s World War 2, buttoned-up British characters played by actors comfortable in reserved roles, sweeping countryside and a positive message. So intent is The Railway Man to tick every box, its left an uneven and muddled film that still manages to pack a surprising, if sometimes wasted, emotional punch.
Colin Firth plays the older Lomax in 1980, the Signals Officer whose memoirs form the basis of the story. Lomax fought for the British in Asia and was captured when Singapore surrendered to the Japanese in 1942. Forced to work on the Thai-Burma railway, otherwise known in a depressingly accurate description as the “death railway” he underwent unimaginable suffering, much of it at the hands of Japanese secret police, particularly Takashi Nagase.
Unable to cope with his experiences, Lomax, 35 years after the war, is an emotional wreck, more comfortable with trains than people. It’s a chance meeting with Patti (Nicole Kidman), a woman who finally wakes him up to the possibilities left in life, and the urging of his old comrade Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård), that encourages him to seek out his Japanese interrogator on a revenge mission that just might put the past to rest.
Reaching for themes of redemption and reconciliation amidst the immense suffering endured, there are a number of deeply powerful moments that hit home. Writers Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson have most success when they delve into events during the war. Jeremy Irvine and Sam Reid play the young Lomax and Finlay, starting with their surrender and building steadily towards Lomax’s torture. Irvine, after a tentative start where he appears to be doing a Colin Firth impression, grows into his role, turning in a well-rounded performance, the best in the film.
When allowed to run mostly uninterrupted, this strand ably depicts the slim hopes the men are forced to cling to, and the gradual erosion of their strength, both physical and mental. After they manage to construct a radio to receive news from home, spirits are visibly lifted but it’s clear that this is little more than a mirage. As engineers, they are spared the true horror of the line, but the occasional trip to find parts and repair equipment reveals the scale of abuse just out of sight. Passing their commanding office, they find him barely able to communicate as he toils on detached and shaking. Even in camp, thin, deflated men are everywhere, skin hanging from starving bodies.
Undeniably strong in parts, too much goes to waste. The obsession with ticking all the boxes and avoiding risks is the downfall of Jonathan Teplitzky’s film. By wasting time in 1980 with a lengthy and dull introduction, focus is drawn from the heart of the story diluting its impact. There is no need to keep switching back to Patti and Finlay. The result is a finale that feels rushed as the film ran out of time to pack in all its content. Lomax’s torture and his compelling showdown with his captor years later are cut short. Instead, we have to watch pointless romance that bleeds into concern for the underused and constricted Patti, and world weary posturing from Finlay.
In fact, aside from the climax, most of the action in the present is dull. Windswept seafronts, rail stations and uninspiring clubs abound. Firth is solid, but nothing more. He gets to display brief snippets of his ability with Lomax’s physiological trauma, but for the most part he’s repressed to the point of disinterest. Kidman is irrelevant, armed with little beyond a clipped accent and stilted manner, but the real casting calamity is Skarsgård. He looks half asleep, hardly a man grappling with mental turmoil. And for a British officer, he appears to have developed a remarkably Swedish accent post war, sounding nothing like Sam Reid’s Finlay. He could have at least tried to mask his accent.
There is also a slightly disturbing message leaking out of the tense head-to-head between Lomax and the older Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada). While it’s clear that the allied POWs did nothing to deserve their treatment, Nagase’s breakdown and expression of respect for Lomax seems to come because he never gave in. When explaining that they were taught to despise those who surrendered, he implies that Lomax never did. While Nagase showed great contrition for his acts, devoting much of his remaining life to correcting wrongs, this clumsily contrasts unfavourably with those that did not take the steps Lomax did, an inelegant point in a film that otherwise goes to great lengths to highlight wrongs and promote reconciliation.
The Railway Man is undone by its own compulsion to include every element it thinks makes the perfect historical drama. Instead, extremely effective emotional highs are partially squandered on a confusing framing device and frankly boring background scenes. The best is very good indeed, but it’s brought back down to earth too frequently to do justice to Lomax’s experiences.