THE RAILWAY MAN
DIRECTOR: Jonathan Teplitzky
CAST: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgaard, Jeremy Irvine, Hiroyuki Sanada
CLASSIFICATION: 13 V
RUNNING TIME: 116 minutes
RATING: 3 stars (out of 5)
MORE about the struggle to be healed than the immediate obvious cost of war, The Railway Man is slow, but the ending makes it worth the wait.
If you can wrap your head around the ponderous pacing, you will be taken in by the understated performances from Colin Firth as a tortured war veteran and Hiroyuki Sanada as the Japanese translator he blames for his pain.
Mad about locomotives, it is only fitting that Eric Lomax (Firth) first encounters his wife, Patti (Kidman), in a meet cute on a train.
As time passes, Patti realises that Eric is still very much stuck in the past. Tortured as a prisoner of war, he doesn’t talk about the trauma, but it affects his persona, his mannerism and how he deals with people.
It is only once she gets one of his friends, Finlay (Skarsgaard), to explain it to her that she even gains an inkling of what could possibly be the problem.
Set in 1980 (and based on a true story) the film moves back and forth chronologically between the characters’ present moment and World War II, filling in detail for the audience in a more visceral way than Patti experiences, hearing the account third-hand.
While it is tedious as it sets up the Eric character, once he returns to Thailand, it becomes a story about confrontation and reconciliation.
Luckily, this issue of slow pacing is overshadowed by the powerful performances from Kidman, Skarsgaard, younger Eric and especially Colin Firth.
Sanada as the older translator also makes excellent use of his short screen time. Tortured in his own way by his deeds, he has his own demons to cope with and the idea of Thailand using the war stories of British prisoners as a tourist attraction illustrates the problems many places face with the same sorts of histories.
At what point does it become exploitation, instead of truthfully interrogating a country’s past?
Skarsgaard provides the pivotal context, but also the poignant explanation for how some people deal by simply getting on with their existence.
Kidman is graceful as the middle-aged, unglamorous Patti, conflicted with how to help her husband. It is her belief that Eric can put his life back together again that provides the touchstone for the film to stop meandering all over the place chronologically, though her story is only touched on in the middle and ignored in the end.
Firth embodies the sad, scared and physically broken down Eric who has to let go of his anger in order to move forward. His initially uncommunicative demeanor changes as he confronts the translator and starts to take charge of his own path, and you are left wondering how you would react in a similarly unnerving situation.
While the ending isn’t unexpected, you are emotionally invested in the characters by then, so you buy into it. And that is why this film works where Transcendence did not.
If you liked Steven Spielberg’s War Horse you will like this.