If “The Railway Man” wasn’t based on a true story it would probably be dismissed as unbelievable hyper-drama. But it is based on a true story which for me made it all the more fascinating. It’s adapted from the bestselling autobiography of Eric Lomax and it strikes a number of heavy emotional chords. It looks at the stresses of war but not through the normal battlefield lens. Instead it examines the trauma some are left with well after the war has ended.
The first thing the film does right is its casting. Colin Firth is unquestionably one of the best actors in the business and this is material he can certainly handle. He plays Eric Lomax and we first meet him as a reserved if not slightly awkward train enthusiast. He sits down with a group of friends and tells them about his chance meeting with a woman named Patti who is stunningly played without an ounce of flash or glamour by Nicole Kidman. The two fall in love and eventually get married.
But in one of the movie’s few clunky bits of storytelling Patti and the audience learn that Eric is holding a lot of inner anguish. Patti’s love for her husband and nursing instincts wants to help him, but he continually shuts her out. She seeks information about Eric’s wartime past from his friend Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård). She finds out that during World War 2 he and some fellow British soldiers were captured by the Japanese and were placed in a hard labor camp where they worked on the railway between Thailand and Burma. During that time Eric endured unspeakable torture which has left him a broken man.
The audience gets to witness the events through a series of well done flashbacks. Jeremy Irvine plays the younger Eric and his resemblance to Firth is uncanny. Irvine was a big surprise and his performance stands right there with Firth’s and Kidman’s. In a great bit of method acting Irvine lost a significant amount of weight for the part. I also read where he did all of his own torture scenes. It’s truly impressive work. Actually I found all of the flashback sequences to be impressive in terms of production and in how it fits in the narrative.
The movie could have easily settled in as a traditional historical war film, but it doesn’t. Instead these flashback scenes work hand-in-hand with the film’s greater focus – an emotionally fragile man, the relationships surrounding him, and his ability to face and overcome the scars left from such traumatic savagery. I loved how these two narrative components worked together. For me each gave the other more meaning. Director Jonathan Teplitzky does a good job of maintaining a necessary cohesion between the two minus a couple of jarring instances where it seems key information was left out.
An argument has been made that “The Railway Man” is too polished and it takes the “safe route”. Others have pointed to its sentimentality feeling unearned. And then there are some who have taken issue with the liberties the film takes with the actual account. For example revenge fuels the film’s version of Eric, but in reality that doesn’t seem to have been the case at all. Each of these criticisms bring up valid points , but I can honestly say none of them hindered my enjoyment of the film or my connection to the characters in any way.
Ultimately “The Railway Man” works because of the amazing story and the fabulous performances that bring it to life. Firth is enthralling and unforgettable. Kidman is precise and beautifully reserved. Irvine shines in what should be breakthrough work. Sure, at times it is emotionally-driven and undeniably sentimental. It may be polished up and too much of a ‘prestige film’ for some. But to let those things hinder your experience would be a shame. I did find myself longing for information that the film chooses to skip over, but that’s my only gripe in what is otherwise a beautiful and moving movie.