Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Prisoner of War Violence
Directed by: Jonathan Teplitzky
Written by: Frank Cottrell Boyce & Andy Paterson
(based on the autobiography by Eric Lomax)
Starring: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Irvine, Stellan Skarsgard, Sam Reid, Hiroyuki Sanada & Tanroh Ishida
Based on the incredible life of Eric Lomax, THE RAILWAY MAN maintains a certain dignity around the tale about one man’s tragic aftermath of his wartime experiences. Inspired by a true story and mostly sticking to the facts with some wiggle room for creative licensing, this is an unusual WWII film that can’t truly be called a war film. I mean this in the most positive way possible. I found myself shaken and on the brink of tears as the end credits began to roll. This was the result of a movie that examines the ruined lives left in the years after WWII. The most basic way of describing the plot is a PTSD victim suffering from the nightmares of his past tries to bring his painful memories to a close. There are two major flaws that keep it from perfection, but THE RAILWAY MAN is an incredible movie in most respects.
The time is the 1980’s and the place is England. Eric Lomax is a railway enthusiast and has met an extraordinary young woman traveling on one of his routes. It’s love at first sight as the two become fast friends over the course of a single train ride. Love means marriage and Patti becomes his wife. Having served as a nurse for two decades, Patti can’t seem to help Lomax’s increasingly troubled state of mind. She tolerates shields he puts up against the outside world, but desperately wants to know why Eric is so troubled. The film then periodically flashes back to Eric’s horrible experiences in a Thai POW camp. Things become even more devastating for the couple when a chance arrives for Eric to come to terms with what happened at the place of his painful past.
THE RAILWAY MAN gets off to a shaky start. If one were to walk into the movie not knowing anything about the plot, they might suspect that this was a mere bland British romance and then be completely shocked by the jarring change of pace later on. The script seems at odds with itself and projects two very different films on the screen. Without a doubt, the more interesting one to watch is the 1940’s POW camp storyline. For a good portion of the cutting back and forth in the first half, I felt as if the 1980’s scenes were dragging for too long and I wanted to see more of Lomax’s hardships during his time in the camp. There is also little to no chemistry between Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. It’s not only the age gap in their characters, but I didn’t buy them as a convincing couple in the slightest. Her screen time withers away as the movie moves forward and time is dedicated to more pressing/interesting matters at hand. Kidman is a wonderful actress in the right roles, but it was a bad decision to put her into the role of Patti.
Those are my problems with THE RAILWAY MAN and I’m so very happy to say that they mainly come in the rough opening patch. Scenes tie themselves together in a far better fashion for the final two-thirds. Colin Firth is riveting to watch as the older Lomax. A very wise move was putting more than capable Jeremy Irvine (who apparently performed his own stunts in the torture scenes) as the young Lomax. There’s a striking resemblance between Firth and Irvine, a quality that helps in any set of actors taking on the same role. Stellan Skarsgard shows up for a rather thankless role, but makes the most of what he’s given. The real tension comes in the interactions later on between Firth and Hiroyuki Sanada/Irvine and Tanroh Ishida. These scenes are the meat of the movie and sitting through the sloggy opening act truly pays off here.
The tone of THE RAILWAY MAN is quiet and brooding, kind of like the title character himself. This is a movie where everything hinged the dialogue and acting. I’m sure some pieces of the story may have been exaggerated for the screen, but the general message of this real life tale remains the same and it’s a heartbreaking conclusion that actually got a few tears out of me. This being said, there’s no earthly reason why THE RAILWAY MAN has been rated R. The description states that it’s for “Disturbing Prisoner of War Violence” and though there are torture sequences, none of them are graphic. It’s hard to watch, but kept on a less-is-more level and never strays into gruesome territory. This story of a harsh reality has not been made accessible to the widest possible age group that it should be available to. It wouldn’t have become a huge box-office smash (it’s doubtful that hoards of teenagers would flock to see this on opening weekend), but it’s a film that needs to be seen (kind of like HOTEL RWANDA, which did get a PG-13 rating). Everything is remarkably restrained and understated in this beautiful little film.
There’s a fair share of problems in THE RAILWAY MAN (a badly paced beginning, the lack of chemistry between Firth and Kidman), but the good far outweighs the bad. This is a heavy film that excessively rewards the viewer for sticking through the lesser parts. My feelings were simultaneously beaten down and brought up by the conclusion that is, thus far, the most emotionally powerful ending I’ve seen in a movie all year. The rest of the film isn’t quite as up to this high level of greatness, but there’s a lot to like. It’s not without some flaws, but I still say THE RAILWAY MAN is an incredible film.