Film review: THE RAILWAY MAN, from Built For Speed
Set mostly in 1980 and based on a true story, British-Australian co-production The Railway Man begins as a typically quirky, charming romance set in a world of steam trains and verdant English countryside. The film recalls Brief Encounter as the calm, sensible and sensitive Patti (Nicole Kidman) meets and eventually marries the awkward, dishevelled trainspotting nerd Eric Lomax (Colin Firth). The film makes a sudden and disturbing tonal shift, though, as it becomes apparent that Eric still bares dreadful scars from his experiences in a Japanese prison camp on the Thai Burma railway in World War Two. Tortured by memories that threaten to destroy his life with Patti, Eric thinks confronting his prison camp persecutor Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada) is his only hope. After a sedate, low-key opening, the film builds in emotional intensity as it heads toward a potentially explosive conclusion.
Even in his comedy roles Colin Firth has always managed to convey turbulent emotion beneath a façade of English propriety and here he does a fine job portraying Eric as a brittle, damaged man, desperately trying to cling to some sort of dignity and humanity. Equally good is Nicole Kidman who, in stark contrast to her recent and very good performances as trashy Southern Belles, displays wonderful restraint in the role of compassionate woman anxiously struggling to cope with her husband’s fracturing mental state. Jeremy Irvine, as the younger war-time Lomax, subtly but accurately impersonates Firth in his portrayal of an innocent and decent man almost destroyed by brutality. As Nagase, Hiroyuki Sanada offers a convincing and affecting portrayal of a man forced to confront his monstrous behaviour. There’s also fine support from a cast that includes Stellan Skarsgard as a former prisoner who has become a mentor and confidante to the traumatised POWs.
Director Jonathan Teplitzky draws a striking contrast between the sweaty torment of the Thai-Burma railroad (including some disturbing torture sequences) and Lomax’s grim post-war life which is signified through an austere grey-blue colour scheme. Still, the film often has the look of an upmarket tele-movie rather than a truly cinematic film.
The Railway Man may not always be artistically inspired cinema but it’s a compelling piece of story-telling and its themes of revenge, redemption, psychological torment and the legacy of war that are potent ones.