Directed by: Jonathan Teplitzky.
Written by: Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson based on the book by Eric Lomax.
Starring: Colin Firth (Eric), Nicole Kidman (Patti), Jeremy Irvine (Young Eric), Stellan Skarsgård (Finlay), Sam Reid (Young Finlay), Tanroh Ishida (Young Takeshi Nagase), Hiroyuki Sanada (Takeshi Nagase), Michael MacKenzie (Sutton), Jeffrey Daunton (Burton), Tom Stokes (Withins), Bryan Probets (Major York), Tom Hobbs (Thorlby), Akos Armont (Jackson).
The Railway Man is about a British WWII veteran, Eric (Colin Firth) who suffers so greatly in a Japanese POW camp that he remains emotionally closed down two decades later. He doesn’t talk about what happened – not even with the men he was imprisoned alongside, or his new wife Patti (Nicole Kidman). He is a railway enthusiast, and spends his time riding the rails, and making money however he can. The movie flashes back and forth in time to his time in that camp, and his life now – and eventually his quest to track down one of his tormentors.
In many ways, the movie follows it main characters lead. It is, for much of its running time, as devoid of emotions – other than sadness – as Eric seems to be. This has led to describe the movie as dull – and to be fair, it is fairly dull at times – but it worked for me. How else can you make a movie about an emotionally closed off character other than to allow the film to be as quiet and somber as its main character? This classically constructed film, which does play things a little too safe, however does lead to powerful climax, which doesn’t quite play out the way we expect it to.
As the older Eric, Colin Firth gives a fine performance. He is a quiet man – outwardly he is intelligent and thoughtful. He doesn’t raise his voice – ever – and chooses his words carefully. For years, he basically suffers in silence – but then he meets Kidman`s Patti – and falls in love. But she knows he is hiding his wartime past – is haunted by it, and also knows if they are ever to be truly happy, he needs to deal with it. She goes to see one his old friends (Stella Skarsgaard) – who tells her what he knows. But that’s only part of the story.
The wartime scenes, where Eric is played by Jeremy Irvine, are weaker than the scenes set two decades later. Director Jonathan Teplitzky plays these scenes with restraint, and taste, as if he wants to protect the audience from the horrors Eric suffered. But there is no protecting Eric, and the film is weaker for this withholding. A more daring film might have jettisoned these scenes altogether and simply told the present day story. But there is little daring about The Railway Man.
This doesn’t mean that the film isn’t good – just that it’s not as good as it could have been. Firth is great – and the final scenes, alongside Hiroyuki Sanada as the older version of one of his tormentors, who is just as haunted by the war as Eric is, are the best in the movie. There have not been enough movies that acknowledges the humanity of people on both sides of the war – particularly the Japanese in WWII. The climax works because the film doesn’t go in the direction we expect it to – and because the performances of the two actors are so good.
The Railway has its share of problems – it`s too safe for such horrific content. The film wastes talented actors like Kidman, who cries really well, and doesn’t get much else to do (she is not really a character – but pretty much a fantasy perfect wife character) and Skarsgaard, whose final act in the movie rings false.
But the scenes in the film that work make up for the ones that don’t. This is not a great film, but it is a good one – a well-acted study of men who will never get over what happened in the war, but can learn to choose to move on with their lives.