‘The Railway Man’
Starring: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgard, Jeremy Irvine, Sam Reid and Hiroyuki Sanada
Running time: 116 minutes
Rated: R for disturbing prisoner of war violence
Bottomline: An admirable failure
The British drama “The Railway Man” is based on the memoir of the same title by Eric Lomax, and the best thing I can say for the movie is it makes me want to read the book.
Although “The Railway Man” isn’t an action-comedy-drama hybrid, it resembles “The Monuments Men” in other ways. Both focus on little-known stories set during World War II and both struggle to find a tone appropriate to their subject.
“The Railway Man” ends up feeling like four short films strung together, each with its own acting style and mood.
The opening scenes play like a sweet romance. While socializing at a veterans’ club, Eric (Colin Firth) tells some of his fellow WWII veterans about encountering Patti (Nicole Kidman) on a train. We flash back to see Eric and Patti fall in love and get married. And it’s all played with the typically British understatement and an abundance of charm.
Firth and Kidman show believable chemistry. Plus, seeing all the elderly men in the club hang on every word of Eric’s little love story is especially delightful.
But on the wedding night, Eric flashes back to a vaguely represented, nightmarish memory of being a prisoner of war. He suffers a nervous breakdown.
Eric has been introverted and shown an unusual love of trains and railways until this point, but there has been no hint he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He is suddenly taken over by this awful memory and ends up writhing on the floor.
All charm and sweetness abruptly disappear from the movie and are replaced by Eric’s constant brooding, the couple’s financial troubles and Patti confiding in Eric’s friend Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard).
When Finlay begins telling Patti what happened to Eric during the war, we flash back to Singapore in 1942 and the movie becomes a prisoner-of-war story. This is the strongest section of the movie.
The actors playing young Eric (Jeremy Irvine) and Finlay (Sam Reid) are very good. It’s the only section of the film that offers genuine suspense since at last we are given characters with clear purpose.
The problem is it marks the second radical change in tone. It’s also the second extended flashback and comes from a character who has meant very little to the film to that point.
These patterns continue for the rest of the film. We see several flashbacks from multiple characters’ points of view. And the final act of the film takes on yet another different tone when Eric confronts Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada), the man largely responsible for Eric’s wartime trauma.
The movie’s greatest asset is the amazing true story on which it is based. Perhaps that story had to be told in a series of distinctly different segments since Eric’s crises take on different natures over time. But the filmmakers don’t shift gracefully among these periods of his life. It doesn’t transition smoothly from one phase of the story to the next. Instead, it stumbles. And one plot turn is so extreme and out-of-the-blue it threatens to make viewers disengage altogether.
Firth has been a remarkably reliable and malleable actor throughout his career, but he was either out of his depth or directed poorly here. His character isn’t consistent from one scene to the next. Eric seems too confident and self-possessed in the beginning for a man who, as we come to find out, struggles so deeply.
The movie also dwells on scenes showing water-boarding and savage beatings to the point where the filmmakers’ agenda begins to show through. It distracts from what should be intensely dramatic scenes.
The real story of Eric Lomax seems fascinating and intrinsically offers moments of astounding forgiveness. Lomax’s memoir is probably a great read. It’s a shame the filmmakers couldn’t adapt it to the screen with the same quality.
Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.