Starring: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Irvine
Genre: Drama/ Biography
During World War II Eric Lomax (Irvine) was one of thousands of prisoners of war forced to work on the Thai-Burma-railway, also known as the death railway. After being discovered building a radio to hear news on the war, he was barbarically tortured by the Kempetai. Years later, Eric (Firth) is a reserved man and railway enthusiast, and it is through travelling on a train that he meets Patti (Kidman), who he marries. However Eric still suffers from severe psychological trauma caused by what happened during the war, unable to find a way of dealing with it. With the help of Patti and his best friend and fellow POW survivor Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård), Eric learns that the one that he suffered so much at the hands of, Takeshi Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada) is still alive and working as a tour guide at the very camp where Eric was tortured. Eric eventually decides to visit Nagase and find some closure to these decades of torment.
Oh the complacency of mainstream films these days! I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the true story of Eric Lomax is an at times harrowing and extremely powerful one that deals with some extremely evocative and poignant humane themes such as suffering and the ability to forgive. I for one could never begin to imagine the suffering and torment that Eric Lomax or indeed any POW went through, yet it often feels at times that as a film The Railway Man seems to think that taking a powerful true story as its source material is simply enough and that therefore no effort whatsoever needs to be put into the film, especially as certain elements have been changed for ‘dramatic effect’.
As a book, I can imagine it is a compelling and powerful read, and perhaps made as a documentary that simply told the facts, that may have provided are far more potent account of this undeniable powerful story. Yet as a melodrama, The Railway Man often feels alienating and almost cynical in its telling, often failing to truly engage and most certainly never doing justice to its source material. I do hope I am wrong, but it does feel to me that those making this were simply cynically thinking about awards, especially with the casting of Colin Firth. Deservedly, The Railway Man did not feature at all at the BAFTAs.
Colin Firth has recently been in many roles that depict a character dealing with severe inner turmoil, and as the older Lomax Firth in my view gives an excellent performance, but is severely let down by the material and just the film in general. Meanwhile, though admittedly having little to do, Nicole Kidman seems horrifically miscast as Lomax’s wife; looking bored as she delivers every line of clichéd dialogue without any conviction or emotion whatsoever. Apparently Rachel Weisz was the original choice, and that in my view would have been far better.
For me the star of The Railway Man is Jeremy Irving; giving his best turn that I have seen by far, he captures the vocals and mannerisms of Firth perfectly. In a physical performance, he evokes sympathy in the very intense torture scenes. Yet even these scenes somehow lack power, when they should have been completely gripping and utterly devastating. The word ‘conventional’ casts a huge shadow over the entire narrative and both the scenes of the past and present, somehow removing and evaporating the raw and intense power these scenes (particularly Irvine’s) should have had.
As the film enters its final third when Lomax learns about one of his captors still being alive, this is where a lot is changed for ‘dramatic affect’, but yet it feels too conventional and actually takes away from what must have been an extremely emotional meeting for both characters. It always feels that as a film The Railway Man is just going through the motions and therefore never engages like it should. The biggest emotional punch comes in the final scene and the showing of photographs of the actual characters, it is the fact this is a true story which for me keeps The Railway Man a just about watchable enough melodrama, but that is no way a compliment to the makers of this cynically made film, because if this was a fiction then it would be an absolutely awful film.
The Railway Man is a perfect example of the complacency of the modern film industry; a powerful and harrowing true story turned into a cynically made and un-engaging melodrama. Irvine and Firth do their best to keep things from derailing completely, but otherwise this is one journey that is barely worth buying a ticket for.