Article By: Dan Clark
At first glance The Railway Man appears to be the latest addition to the genre of stale British golden age love stories–a tale of an introverted man, with an odd fascination of trains, failing in love at first sight with a beautiful woman during a random encounter. In reality the romance element is summed up within the first fifteen minutes in order to approach much deeper and darker territory.
The Railway Man adapts the memoir of World War II veteran Eric Lomax as it recants his story of surviving a brutal Japanese Prisoner of War Camp and the struggle he faced long after he left the gates of confinement. With its multifaceted narrative and gripping performances, it continues the crucial discussion of the effects of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. From the start it is apparent it is leading to something vital; however an abrupt unsatisfying ending comes before it can reach that point.
Director Jonathan Teplitzky had many paths he needed to intersect to tell this account of a man trying to work through a troubled past. As stated the onset may have you thinking you walked into the wrong movie. Colin Firth, who plays the older Eric Lomax, at first appears like a gleeful citizen with a fanaticism for trains. After meeting the wonderful Patti (Nichole Kidman) on a train he falls in love and they shortly marry. Smartly the film speeds through the relationship arc to spend more time with the weightier material. Patti and Eric marry so quickly that Patti is unaware of Eric’s traumatic disorder.
Corresponding with Firth’s struggle is the story of the younger Lomax and his time at the Japanese POW camp. Ever so slightly what happened to him is revealed. As we move further into the horrors he endured the effect of the horrors take a stronger and stronger hold on his older self. Transitions of this nature can be challenging. Here they are handled with ease. Smart timing and clever audio cues allow the adjustment of plotlines to feel seamless.
As Patti sees her new husband struggle she seeks the assistance of his veteran comrades. As she learns about what happened to him they all discover one of former high-ranking Officers of the Prison Camp is still alive. Lomax now has to decide if he should confront the man, and what he will do to him if he does.
The strength of the film is clearly its acting talent. Firth plays a part he is familiar with—a sheepish but refined figure looking to overcome a personal flaw—but there is a more ominous tone than he normally portrays. Nicole Kidman is better than she has been in a while. She is not playing a part but living a role. Her subdued demeanor stops her from becoming heavily melodramatic. Her helplessness is apparent as her face and teary eyes reveal her tragic frustration. It is her dilemma that ties everything together, and the ladder half of the film suffers when she becomes forgotten.
Although Kidman and Firth are the more notable names, Jeremy Irvine may actually give the best performance. At first he begins as an eager young solider always looking to continue the fight. Noble and innocent, it is as if he is not fully aware of the hopelessness that awaits him. Slowly that innocence is stolen. Watching fellow soldiers go mad during the backbreaking construction of a railway along with the constant torture makes him a shell of his former self. It is that shell that he and Patti spend much of their lives mending.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is very much a hot button issue at the moment. So much so we have begun to reevaluate the effect it had on past wars as well. Movies such as The Master dilute the idea that life for Allied soldiers after WWII was as unanimously idyllic as some have made it seem. The Railway Man attempts to further that point and it does—slightly. Emotion will certainly be felt for Lomax’s plight, and the intentions are certainly to be admired. However, good intentions do not always yield their desired result. Although labeling The Railway Man Oscar bait would be hyperbolic, there is no doubt it is aware of the importance of its subject matter. It knows what it wants to say and cannot wait to tell you. That over eagerness causes its inevitable conclusion to arrive unnaturally. The poignant statement it is trying to make lacks one key component—new insight.