Skip to main content

Colin Firth plays Eric Lomax, a man trapped in a vortex of grief, shame and hate.

Jaap Buitendijk

2.5 out of 4 stars

Written by
Frank Cottrell Boyce, Andy Paterson
Directed by
Jonathan Teplitzky
Starring
Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman
Country
Australia/U.K.
Language
English
Year
2014

In The King's Speech and A Single Man Colin Firth proved that he's very good at playing a man struggling to repress his inner turmoil while maintaining external decorum. In The Railway Man, a drama based on the memoirs of former British officer Eric Lomax, Firth goes deeply where he has gone before in the real-life story of a former Japanese prisoner-of-war, coping with a lifetime of post-traumatic stress.

Well-acted and building to a crowd-pleasing catharsis, The Railway Man is the sort of inspirational survivor story that often gets Oscar nods, though this particular film, directed by Jonathan Teplitzky (Burning Man) is hampered on several levels. The critical problems are an overbusy time-jumping script and reliance on the conventions of the trauma drama – flashbacks, fragmentation, distorted time and space – that prove more a barrier than a window into the character's inner lives.

We begin, somewhat unnecessarily, with Lomax's death in 2012 at the age of 93 and then jump back 30 years to 1980, to a veteran's club in the northern English town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, where Eric, an obsessive railway enthusiast, tells his fellow vets that he has recently fallen in love with a woman he met on a train. In flashback, we see the encounter between the shy Eric, around 60, who knows everything about trains and charms the pretty 43-year-old nurse, Patti (Nicole Kidman), a newly single woman heading out on a Scottish holiday.

Story continues below advertisement

After a brief, fumbling, charming courtship, the two get married. Initially, Eric's obsession with train schedules suggests a mild quirk, though it turns out to be only a symptom of a deeper fixation on time and escape. Eric has nightmares and flashbacks of his wartime torments at the hands of a Japanese torturer, Nagase (Tanroh Ishida), and displays behaviour that ranges from absent-mindedness to outright violence.

In desperation, Patti turns to his friend and fellow prisoner-of-war, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgaard), to explain what happened. In the well-done flashbacks set in the Thai jungle, Finlay recounts how young Eric (played by Jeremy Irvine) built a radio receiver, which gave the prisoners hope with news of an Allied victory, but was beaten and cruelly tortured, including the use of simulated drowning, by the Japanese, with Nagase as a particularly cruel perpetrator.

The turning point comes when Finlay discovers that Nagase is still alive, and is now conducting guided tours of the internment camp where Eric and the other men were held and Eric decides he must travel to Thailand to confront his former oppressor.

The film's pivotal scene grapples with powerful ideas and intense performances by Firth and Japanese actor, Hiroyuki Sanada as the older Nagase, though all of it smacks of theatrical contrivance. Not surprisingly, little of it corresponds to the circumstances of the actual meeting of the two men.

Firth gives the performance his all as a man trapped in a vortex of grief, shame and hate, but as in Scott Hicks's Shine, which the film occasionally resembles, there's an overtidy relationship between trauma and catharsis. Playing a woman close to her real age (mid-40s) though looking much younger, Kidman offers a tender performance in early scenes, but falls victim to a script that too often leaves her character as a tearful bystander.

Unnecessary poetic license has been taken here at several points, including the fact that Lomax, rather than a lonely bachelor, was a married man with grown children when he met Patti. The story of his experiences and subsequent relationship with his torturer was also chronicled in a documentary (Enemy My Friend) and dramatized for BBC television in a program called Prisoners in Time, co-written by Chilean exile, Ariel Dorfman. The parallels between The Railway Man and Dorfman's torture drama Death and the Maiden are hard to miss.

Follow me on Twitter: @liamlacey

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter