While not without some pacing problems, the life during and after wartime drama The Railway Man works well. It’s far more personal than epic, showing the scars that some soldiers and prisoners on both sides carry long after the violence and the conflict have ended.
It’s the true story of Eric Lomax (Colin Firth as an adult and Jeremy Irvine as his younger surrogate in flashbacks), a British soldier captured during World War II who endured some of the most horribly gruelling conditions imaginable as a forced labourer on the Thailand Death Railway. Years later he confronts his demons when he learns that his tormentor from the war is still alive.
It gets the tone and look of a war movie bang on, but Jonathan Teplitzky’s work here always feels a little too slight to generate any genuine gravitas to sell the drama of the situation. It’s a personal, character based story, but the actual structure of what happens is overly simplistic.
It starts off simply enough as a period romance between Eric and his often confounded lover Patti (Nicole Kidman), but it rushes through their courting to get to the full blown trauma when she witnesses a full blown nightmare on their honeymoon night. The pacing in the first act is challenging at the best of times, but this drama does manage to shine once it has gotten to the meat of the story and the reasons of Eric’s emotional damage finally gets some explanation.
With material as rich as this, it feels almost overly old fashioned at times. Approaching the narrative in such a step by step manner feels ever so slightly out of rhythm with the characters and their motivations. It’s quite predictable and convenient. This is a situation where compelling character work is key in order to save the story, and thankfully Teplitzky has it in spades on this effort with his cast. Teplitzky also helps by immaculately shooting his locations from the English countryside to the sweaty jungle of Thailand. They all look gorgeous and harrowing as the situation calls for it.
Firth is a tender and brave hero broken by the horrors of war and searching for healing. He wears layers upon layers of pain right underneath the surface and he shows them bubbling up as he struggles to move past it all. Kidman, in a surprisingly calm and even dowdy role as his new wife, manages to embody the role of the ever supportive wife but it’s still kind of thankless and underdeveloped here. The great Stellan Skarsgard and Hiroyuki Sanada deliver some strong supporting work, but even they seem to be pushed to the sideline to give Firth more to do.
If you can get past the somewhat awkward and out of place first act, The Railway Man is worth it overall. It’s a compelling enough drama, but it keeps hinting at a lot more depth that never quite surfaces.