The Railway Man is a peculiar act of prestige filmmaking, a dramatization of a revealing memoir that contains scenes of great, quaking horror, but also ones that seem to have been designed to blunt the impact of its truths. The source material is a 1995 autobiography by Eric Lomax, a British Army officer who was captured by the Japanese during the Fall Of Singapore, forced to participate in the grueling, dangerous building of the Burma Railway, and ruthlessly tortured for his troubles. The film, which condenses and tweaks events in ways that range from totally permissible to highly questionable, undergoes an unusual evolution: It begins as a spritely romance, transforms into a nightmarish POW drama, flirts with becoming a revenge fantasy, and ends like a human interest story. Along the way, The Railway Man accumulates some power and insight, but it’s also hard to shake the feeling that a complicated first-person account has been given the Weinstein treatment.
Those who walk in completely uninitiated may suspect, based on the early scenes, that they’re about to experience the middle-age answer to Before Sunrise. (Only the throb of ominous music over the opening credits betrays the darker direction to come.) On an English commuter train, war veteran Eric (Colin Firth) has a meet-cute with Patti (Nicole Kidman), wooing her via his Firthian fluster and geeky knowledge of train lines. The misleading gentle charm of the first act is thematically justified: When the film takes a hard right turn into the trauma of war, it’s essentially mimicking the way that PTSD can sneak up on someone, violently hijacking a life years or even decades later. From here, director Jonathan Teplitzky cuts back and forth between scenes of a young Eric (Jeremy Irvine) enduring unspeakable suffering at a POW camp, and those of Patti trying to uncover the details of his experience from WWII comrade Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård). Eric’s recovery seems hopeless until he stumbles upon an opportunity for belated closure: One of his tormenters, Mr. Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada), apparently runs a war museum in Japan, turning a profit with stories of the crimes he and his men committed.
Communicating the emotional state of an uncommunicative man, Firth effectively embodies a sad tradition of private perseverance—of former soldiers shouldering the burden of their memories, determined to never talk about what they went through. Kidman, by contrast, just seems wasted, her talents squandered on a role that asks her to be little more than a patient, listening ear and audience surrogate. The Railway Man doesn’t shy away from the awfulness of Eric’s ordeal; the film’s middle portion grimly evokes his coping process, the flashbacks coming in waves, like sudden seizures of ugly recollection. Where the film missteps is in its final passage, in which Firth’s damaged survivor travels to Japan to confront his old enemy. Heavily manipulating the truth of this real-life encounter, the film engineers false suspense. It then ends at the exact moment that it’s become truly interesting, closing on an uplifting note instead of further investigating its most fascinating, unlikely relationship. Perhaps this is just the drawback of trying to cram a decades-spanning tale of pain, resentment, and catharsis into a two-hour movie. Inevitably, some nuances will be lost in translation.