The Railway Man tells the real life story of Eric Lomax, a Lieutenant in World War II who was captured along with his regiment and forced to participate in the construction of the Burma Railway. The film is based on the memoirs of Lomax himself, and details the remarkable story of how he was tortured at the hands of a young Japanese officer whom he later met and, extraordinarily, reconciled with, decades after the war was over.
Every now and again we hear war stories that reaffirm the potential for goodness in humankind, even in the most horrific circumstances, and this story – which follows Lomax in his later years and in wartime flashbacks – is one with a simple but transcendent message.
It is directed by Jonathan Teplitzky and stars both Colin Firth and Jeremy Irvine as Eric Lomax. In the post-war segments, we see Lomax meeting and falling in love with Patti (Nicole Kidman) and attending veterans meetings headed up by old war colleague Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård). Jeremy Irvine’s sections are more straightforward, and detail the conditions under which POWs were treated by Japanese forces.
I felt that the film, although it is well made, was rarely as remarkable or memorable as the story it is telling. This may be because the framing narrative keeps the older Lomax off screen for much of the mid section, and in doing so removes our most direct emotional link to the events being recounted. Instead, we see Patti interviewing Finlay about his former comrade’s travails, while our link to Lomax becomes the Jeremy Irvine section of the film, which is nicely played but ultimately quite straightforward. Although the film is establishing the horrors of war in its flashbacks, it actually has the effect of removing us from the focus of the first part of the film, in which Lomax struggles to live comfortably with Patti under the weight of the memories he cannot expunge. It’s not too much of a criticism, because the flashback scenes are decently done, but because the film begins with a charisma of its own – a lovely sequence in which Lomax awkwardly charms Patti on a train – the war scenes feel oddly distracting and undercooked.
Thankfully the final third of the film, in which Lomax returns to the scene of the horrors that befell him, is effectively done. Like the mid section, I felt that the script was lacking a spark at times, but Firth and Hiroyuki Sanada (who plays the older version of Lomax’s torturer) give the scenes gravitas. Sanada’s performance is perhaps the most important in the film, because it counters the one-sided depiction of the Japanese that comes as a result of only seeing things from Lomax’s perspective. There is also a quite beautiful moment in which Lomax looks out over an English landscape – notably featuring a railway bridge – which is one of the film’s most memorable and subtle touches.
At the closing credits, we get the now fairly standard Hollywood practice of bringing in photographs of the real protagonists, and it’s a genuinely moving conclusion. The film is uneven, and doesn’t make the most of Firth’s good performance in the opening scenes, but it’s never theless a solidly made piece of drama. Although the film itself is not exceptional, it tells an important story with a well-articulated message, and for that reason merits attention.