You can’t fault “The Railway Man” for not having a worthwhile story to tell or for telling that story in a way that doesn’t conform, more or less, to the truth. And yet, when all’s said and done, it’s a journey that doesn’t quite live up to its destination.
There are reasons for that, including forcing a romance into the mix and trying a little too hard for a finale that knocks the redemptive, humanistic ball out of the park. Mostly, though, it’s just plain predictable and oddly stodgy.
“Railway Man” is based on a memoir by Eric Lomax, a young English officer during World War II, who surrendered with his unit when the Japanese captured Singapore. And was subsequently forced to work on building the infamous “Death Railway” connecting Burma and Siam — the same forced-labor nightmare dramatized in “The Bridge Over the River Kwai.” Lomax was also viciously tortured after constructing a radio that allowed fellow prisoners to listen to war news during interrogations overseen by a cruel young secret-police officer named Nagase.
The film opens in 1980, the older Lomax (effectively underplayed by Colin Firth) having survived physically despite grievous emotional and psychological wounds. He is indulging his lifelong passion for railroads when he finally meets Patti (Nicole Kidman, given little to do), another lonely soul who becomes the love of his life. Patti determines to uncover the secret of what happened to Lomax during the war when his radical post-traumatic stress reactions threaten their marriage.
Meanwhile, Lomax’s past has suddenly become his present. After fantasizing for decades about torturing and killing Nagase, he learns he’s still alive and very conveniently working as a tour guide at the same prison camp, which has been turned into a war crimes museum. Should he ignore this news and move on? Or turn his fantasies into reality?
If that sounds like a compelling question, well, it is. Especially since it was one Lomax apparently had to face in real life. There’s a reason this story has already been made into a documentary and a TV movie — and that Nagase, who remained after the war and financed a Buddhist temple for atonement, has written a book of his own on the subject.
The problem is that by the time Lomax decides to return to Southeast Asia, we’ve spent so much time bouncing back and forth between 1980 and 1942 that it seems we’re neither here nor there. And it doesn’t help that there’s an odd emotional disconnect between the brutality of the torture inflicted on Lomax and director Jonathan Teplitzky’s self-consciously artful handling of it. Including choral accompaniment during one particularly graphic beating.
“Railway Man” does get props for being handsomely produced, though, and nicely acted by a cast featuring Jeremy Irvine of “War Horse” as the young Lomax and Hiroyuki Sanada (“The Twilight Samurai”) as the older Nagase.
It’s just a shame that, in the end, such a moving story feels over-sold.