By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The Railway Man is an earnest, intense drama about the torture of a British Army officer at a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during World War II, and the victim’s vengeful confrontation with his torturer half a century later.
Colin Firth stars as Eric Lomax, a damaged victim of World War II’s “Death Railway,” the Thai-Burma Railway that ran from Thailand to Burma and was constructed by the Japanese in 1943 (and eventually closed in 1947).
Lomax was put to work in the forced-labor camp — along with many other captured Brits, Asians, and Australians -– to help create train tracks through the jungle.
In 1980, he sets out to find those responsible for his torture there.
Jeremy Irvine plays Lomax as a young British officer (and he’s a convincing younger version of Firth), when he’s captured in Singapore by the Japanese and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp.
While in the camp, Lomax is suspected of being a spy and then tortured by Japanese soldiers for having built a forbidden radio out of spare parts and developed a map. And a young Japanese interpreter named Takashi Nagase, played by Tanroh Ishida, assists Lomax’s sadistic oppressors.
Years later, Lomax, now played by Firth, is a mere shell of his former self, a broken man struggling to adjust to civilian life. He still suffers from crippling PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) as a result of his brutal experience in the camp.
Experiencing severe nightmares and terrifying flashbacks, filled with understandable hate, he seeks some form of closure and still bitterly resents how much his lingering memories and pain have damaged his life and his intimate relationships.
Nicole Kidman portrays the Canadian nurse who becomes the older Lomax’s patient and supportive wife, Patti, while Stellan Skarsgård is his best friend, Finlay, a fellow veteran of the “Death Railway.” Both help Lomax in his quest to find and confront at least one of his captors.
And he does indeed discover not only that Nagase, his main tormentor, is still alive, but that he has turned the camp, where Lomax endured unspeakable punishment but somehow survived, into a war museum, where he now explains the railway to tourists.
So Lomax travels to Thailand to track down Nagase, played now by Hiroyuki Sanada, and returns to the place where he was cruelly beaten and waterboarded, hoping somehow to exorcise his demons.
The director, Jonathan Teplitzky (Burning Man, Better Than Sex, Gettin’ Square), takes his time getting to the emotional fireworks, which fits Firth’s underplaying to a tee.
And their restrained collaboration and relaxed pacing pay off: if the climax doesn’t quite pack the intended emotional wallop, it certainly earns our respect for the unconventional resolution.
The script, by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson, based on the 1995 autobiography of the same title by Lomax (who died in 2012), frequently jumps backward and forward in time, and certainly takes liberties with chronology and time frames in the name of drama enhancement. But this is one case in which our knowledge that the narrative is based on truth accommodates our suspension of disbelief.
And such themes as redemption, reconciliation, and forgiveness are addressed with sensitivity and intelligence.
As for Firth, he holds us in his firm grasp without pushing the histrionics button and he is ably supported by Kidman in a crucial if underwritten role.
The film that The Railway Man will undoubtedly bring to mind is David Lean’s Oscar-winning 1957 classic, The Bridge on the River Kwai, if for no other reason because both films depict the same railway construction project.
So we’ll torture 2½ stars out of 4 for an austere and low-key but absorbing and suspenseful retribution drama. Watchable work from Firth and Kidman keeps The Railway Man on the right track.