On paper, The Railway Man looks to be a sure-fire awards contender: it stars two Oscar-winning actors (Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman) and is based on an extraordinary true story of human suffering, endurance and courage during the building of the infamous Burma Railway, undertaken by Allied prisoners of war during World War Two. In reality, however, though there are some dramatic scenes of torture, the overall effect is rather underwhelming.
Firth plays another man with communication issues, though here they stem from the trauma of war. Eric Lomax is a ‘railway enthusiast’, and in the film’s opening scenes he meets his wife-to-be (Nicole Kidman’s rather uninspired Patti) on a train. Faced with Eric’s refusal to explain the reason behind his nightmares and occasional violent outbursts, Patti turns to one of her new husband’s wartime friends – a woefully miscast Stellan Skarsgård, who for some odd reason refuses to mask his Swedish accent – for answers. This leads us into a series of flashbacks set in the prison camp in which Jeremy Irvine plays the young Eric.
As the young Lomax – the clever engineer who risked his life by constructing a radio, enabling the prisoners to listen to updates, but not to broadcast – Irvine is perhaps the best thing about this film. He is completely convincing as the teenage Lomax/Firth and brilliantly recreates the older man’s speech patterns and mannerisms. He also captures Lomax’s obvious intelligence and passion for trains and yet makes him interesting, whereas Firth only ever comes across as dull. The wartime scenes of subterfuge, heroism and torture are the most gripping, and yet any dramatic tension is lost by the constant cutting back to Berwick-upon-Tweed in the 1980s.
Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada deserves a mention for his convincing turn as Lomax’s torturer now struggling with the burden of guilt, and yet there is an air of inevitability about his scenes with Firth, who travels to Thailand to exorcise his demons: he intends to kill his torturer, yet ends up forgiving him and forming a lasting friendship. This is, of course, both extraordinary and admirable. It ought to be incredibly moving and uplifting – affirming the human capacity for forgiveness and all that – and yet screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce and director Jonathan Teplitzky deny us that with a clunky, cliché-ridden script (Patti is responsible for most of these) and a distinct lack of momentum due to the aforementioned frequent cutting and a shifting of perspective between the main characters. The powerful emotional conclusion to this real-life tale of unimaginable pain that tested the very limits of human endurance is sadly, and frustratingly, lacking.