Director: Jonathan Teplitzky
Runtime: 116 minutes
The present day scenes of The Railway Man, based on the horrific WW2 experiences of Eric Lomax, take place in 1980. It's a shame the film wasn't made in that same year. Boasting the sort of prestige-y, historically-driven material that used to get big budgets and sweep awards seasons of yesteryear, this story feels a bit stale. Though the cast is of high caliber, writing and directing positions have been filled by novices. Were David Lean still alive, he would have no doubt worked a small miracle with Lomax's tale of suffering and forgiveness. Instead, The Railway Man is bland and uneven; it's an adequate, moderately stirring story that deserves much, much better.
Helmed by Aussie TV director Jonathan Teplitzky, it's not surprising that The Railway Man is a bit too modest in vision. Recent BBC miniseries like Birdsong and Parade's End have as much, if not more style and visual flair. There's some nice photography, especially in the WW2-set flashbacks, yet it remains a rather muted, stuffy-looking project.
This shortcoming wouldn't stick out so much if the writing or directing had a better handle on the story. In 1980, WW2 vet Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) is struggling to uphold his marriage to Patti (Nicole Kidman). Lomax is crippled by memories of his traumas on the Pacific theater, when British forces in Singapore were overtaken by the Japanese. The brutality that followed was so brutal that Lomax shuts down whenever Patti tries to get him to open up.
At least, that's what we're told through a conversation Patti has with Lomax's old war comrade Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard). Jumping between past and present, The Railway Man never grounds itself in adult Eric's life enough to make his eventual reckoning a genuinely compelling moment. Though the 1980-set scenes are filled with all of the big-name actors, it's in the Singapore flashbacks that The Railway Man works best. It's unburdened with filling in psychological gaps, precisely because it exists to create them for the scenes in the future.
And, despite one or two wobbly, visual effects-driven wide shots, the wartime scenes do feel more convincing, despite their limited scale. Once captured by the Japanese, the British were tasked with building a railroad in Southeast Asia, enduring hellish physical and mental conditions. It's this very story that inspired the classic The Bridge on the River Kwai, albeit told in a far less compelling manner. Whatever registers in the The Railway Man does so at a depth just below skin deep. Young Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) and his comrades are played by a host of unmemorable folk who do no better than the extras filling out the frame.
The present day cast, thankfully, are much easier to watch. Despite some clunky dialogue, Firth, Kidman, and Skarsgard all do their best to support the script's weak foundations. Firth fares best by virtue of the film ultimately coming down to his decades-long struggle. His interactions opposite Kidman and Skarsgard are convincing, although they're in dire need of expansion. No one is helped, however, by the shoddy opening act setting up Eric and Patti's romance, which is stitched together like a rather dreary-looking romantic comedy. The film gets a small boost in the final half hour thanks to the introduction of Hiroyuki Sanada (as the adult version of Lomax's main interrogator), yet by that point it's not nearly enough.
So, even though The Railway Man is never exactly boring, it can't help but feel a bit stodgy, even in its best moments. It's not an embarassment for anyone involved, but rather a disappointment. There is such rich material at the heart of Lomax's story, yet Teplitzky and the screenplay keep fumbling around. It's never emotionally stillborn, but it's also moving too slowly to make a mark on the viewer the way that WW2 did on Lomax himself.