There is a compelling story bursting to get out of The Railway Man, Jonathan Teplitzky’s flat adaptation of Eric Lomax’s memoir. However, some of the most fascinating sections of Lomax’s tale are a mystery to those who have not picked up his award-winning book. Strong performances from Colin Firth and Jeremy Irvine, as a middle-aged and young adult Lomax, respectively, give the veteran’s story layers that Teplitzky fails to capture in the rest of his woe-begotten film, which is safe, simplistic and only intermittently involving.
As an older man, Lomax obsessed over the order and operation of England’s railways, to the extent that he can hop between platforms to the one that most suits his travels when his original trip is delayed. Coasting through the countryside on the train one morning, in a shabby coat, he chats with Patti (Nicole Kidman, hardly used), and falls in love with her. After they marry and move in together, Lomax’s repressed feelings of his life at war begin to show, which makes Patti distraught.
Lomax was a captive of the Japanese Army who was forced to work on the Thai-Burma Railway in the early 1940s. When the camera positions us in Lomax’s perspective as his psyche drifts from lying in his ordinary bedroom to a vivid, nightmarish vision of Japanese officers beating him and throwing him into a shed, the sequence is startling. However, haunting moments where the audience can envision the brutality and resilience Lomax met as a prisoner of war are kept to a minimum. Both Firth and Irvine are forced to carry much of the weight of the anguish of their experience on their faces.
When Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson’s script flashes back to Singapore as the younger Lomax comes to terms with his fate as a laborer, we get a sense of the soldier’s feelings. One expects the story will stick with him so that we can understand his relationships with British friends and Japanese foes. Peculiarly though, the script reveals little about his experience in internment.
The way that the screenwriters ration story and character information to the audience is more literary than filmic. Boyce and Paterson hold back on revealing the tragic events that befell a young Lomax until a sign from the present day appears – a hose to evoke his water boarding at the hands of the Japanese, for instance. In another moment, when the music wilts as Lomax dances with Patti, he thinks of the radio he built in the camp that was later confiscated by the Japanese, as they feared he was transmitting information with the enemy Chinese.
While that approach may work on the page, it is frustrating to watch a pained adult Lomax set out for retribution without knowing much about what happened to him. His wartime experiences, the focal point of the story, are parceled out in small bits throughout the running time, which sags and saunters its way to a safe conclusion.
Although the mystery of his past builds and is eventually answered, the momentum of the drama is too flat to keep an audience absorbed for long. As a result of holding back the past from the audience, much of the scenes between adult Lomax and Nagase are filled with lots of talking and description, which meanders and rarely registers since we don’t have the foresight of what they are referring to.
Structurally, The Railway Man is unstable. Dramatically, the film is also shaky and quite simplistic. The second half features the ugly confrontation between the traumatized old soldier and his captor, Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada). Lomax’s reconnecting with an old foe does percolate his feelings of disgust, but the growth of his relationship with Nagase moving forward is rushed. The two comes to terms with the events of the past in a frustratingly pat and unconvincing way. To watch climactic meeting between the two men wrap up so quickly betrays the power of what makes this story of human redemption so remarkable.
Making things worse, Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky’s production is too safe. The scenes of what should be harrowing depictions of poor labor conditions and abusive behaviour are more fragile than frightening. Meanwhile, for a story concerned with one man’s coming to terms with his past and trying to find the humanity of the other side, The Railway Man avoids characterizing the Japanese soldiers in a muti-dimensional way, depicting them as little more than barbaric.
A wearied and wrinkled Colin Firth does all he can to bring Lomax’s traumatized state to light, but the strength of the role lies more in the performance than in his characterization. Irvine is similarly terrific, the passivity on his face showing his reluctance to not harm his oppressor – one that mirrors Firth’s exceptionally close when the story moves between times.
That being said, not even Irvine and Firth can save what is a dull take on a dark but compelling account of a corner of World War II that does not often receive a big-screen treatment. Safe and simplistic, The Railway Man does not do a fine job honouring the veteran who died in 2012, or the late Sanada, either. With the exception of some strong performance, the material lacks the feeling and depth that a tale about this kind of reconciliation deserves.
A war veteran’s compelling confrontation of his life in a POW camp is brought to life with insipid pacing and mawkish storytelling in The Railway Man.