The story is compelling but the telling less than ideal in “The Railway Man,” Jonathan Teplitzky’s film about Eric Lomax, a British officer taken prisoner by the Japanese after the surrender of Singapore in 1942 and forced to work on the infamous Burma Railway, also called the Death Railway, of which the bridge on the Kwai river was one link. Though brutally tortured during his internment, he ultimately reconciled with one of those responsible, a translator named Nagase, in an expression of the power of forgiveness.
Teplitzky and screenwriters Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson take liberties with the details of Lomax’s life in the interest of simplifying their dramatic arc. One would never know, for instance, that by the time emotionally damaged Eric (played by Colin Firth) met Patti Wallace (Nicole Kidman) aboard one of the trains that so fascinated him in 1980, he’d been married for thirty-five years and had three adult children. (He would divorce in order to marry Patti.) Here he’s simply presented as a solitary, troubled man still shell-shocked from his wartime experiences, his only support, it appears, coming from his old military friend Finlay (Stellen Skarsgard), and Patti becomes the woman who finally rescues him from his unresolved psychological trauma.
But if one’s willing to accept such toying with fact, “The Railway Man” tells a wrenching tale of the suffering, both immediate and long-term, of Brits who fell under Japanese control in Southeast Asia. Much of the picture is given over to flashbacks in which Jeremy Irvine (the hero of Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse”) plays the younger Lomax, whose engineering knowledge places him, along with Finlay and some of the other soldiers, in a less onerous position than the unfortunates actually put to work digging the trenches and laying the track for the Burma Railway. When the Japanese discover that the “privileged” captives have constructed a small radio to listen to Allied broadcasts, Lomax courageously takes sole responsibility, and suffers terrible torture—beatings and waterboardings—to try to make him confess to spying. Translator Nagase Takashi (Tanroh Ishida) witnessed it all, occasionally flinching but never objecting.
These sequences in the forties are easily the most powerful portions of the film, reminiscent of earlier pictures that dealt with Japanese mistreatment of prisoners (not least “The Bridge on the River Kwai”), but no less moving for that. Irvine is impressive here, as are Ishida and Sam Reid, who plays the younger Finlay. But the modern sequences are lugubriously paced and far less successful. Firth brings his patented brand of quivering sensitivity to the damaged Lomax, and he does manage to steel himself up for the final confrontation-turned-reconciliation with the older Nagase played by Hiroyuki Sanada, who’s become a tour guide at a war museum and expresses shame and regret over his conduct. But he never manages to capture the deeper aspects of the character, nor does Sanada those of his. Kidman, though looking positively radiant, is pretty much wasted playing the part of catalyst to Lomax’s search for closure, while the usually reliable Skarsgard seems vaguely lost as Finlay. (It doesn’t help that unlike Firth, Irvine and Reid, he doesn’t come across as British at all.)
But it’s Teplitzy who must shoulder most of the blame for the film’s failure to achieve its potential dramatic power. He not only fails to secure the utmost from much of his cast, but stages the picture, especially in the modern sequences, clumsily, believing quite rightly that the material is significant but not realizing that its seriousness doesn’t mean that it should be presented in a staid, self-important style that renders it ponderous rather than powerful. (Understatement is usually a virtue, but it can be taken to an extreme.) Editor Martin Connor’s deliberate pacing adds to the impression of stodginess.
On the other hand, the production design by Steven Jones-Evans, art direction by Nicki McCallum and costumes by Lizzy Gardiner are all excellent, capturing both periods—the wartime 1940s and peacetime 1980s—well, while cinematographer Garry Phillips makes loving use of both the exterior locations and the carefully-designed, expertly embellished interiors in his luscious widescreen images. David Hirschfelder’s score is as restrained in approach in its way as Teplitzy’s is.
The question, therefore, is whether the unquestionably meaningful substance of Lomax’s story is sufficient to overcome the deficiencies in this account of it. And the answer is: not quite, but “The Railway Man” comes close enough that you might want to give it a chance to move you.