Having enjoyed critical, if not commercial, success with his previous film Burning Man, Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky again presents a central character wracked by emotional pain in his latest offering, The Railway Man. Whilst the films are vastly different in style and tone, the central character in both is a man whose whole life, and the relationships within it, are influenced by tragic events from the past that constantly threaten to push him beyond the brink. An Australian-UK co-production, The Railway Man is an adaptation of an autobiography by Eric Lomax, a prisoner at the hands of the Japanese in WW2 who was forced to work on the construction of the notorious Thai/Burma railway. The story examines the lasting effects of the extreme punishment endured by Lomax during his time as a prisoner of war.
We are introduced to Lomax (Colin Firth), a trainspotter (or railway enthusiast as he prefers to be called) partaking in what seems to be the only joy in his life, undertaking one of his regular train journeys around Britain. However, on this particular trip, he meets Patricia (Patti) Wallace (Nicole Kidman), who finds his gruff demeanour as somewhat charming and his train fixation as eccentric. Mutual attraction reigns, the couple fall in love and are married within the first 10 minutes of running time. However, the honeymoon period is short lived as Lomax soon lapses into bouts of moodiness, depression and emotional detachment. At a loss to understand what is haunting her husband, Patti turns to Lomax’s friend and fellow prisoner of war Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) in an effort to understand what torments this otherwise quiet man.
From this point, the narrative alternates between the post-war setting in which we have met Eric and Patti and flashbacks to Eric’s experiences working on the Thai/Burma railway. The wartime flashbacks and the horrors endured by those working on the railway are powerful. The younger Lomax, played by Jeremy Irvine, displays extraordinary resilience in the face of the abuse inflicted upon him by his interrogators. The punishments of the prison camp are all too real and you get a sense of the sheer magnitude of what these men were expected to achieve under the most brutal conditions. Having been caught with a contraband radio, Lomax is subjected to savage beatings and other forms of physical abuse by his captors.
Lomax’s recollection of events place Japanese guard Takashi Nagasi as the prime instigator of the torture inflicted upon him and, when a newspaper article reveals that Nagasi is not only still alive but now working at the former prison camp as a tourist guide, Lomax sets off to confront him and seek revenge and, it is at this point, that Patti learns the true nature of what her husband experienced. However, the confrontation between Lomax and Nagasi (Hiroyuki Sanada) is somewhat anti-climactic due to the fact that, no matter what he has endured, Lomax remains a decent man. In fact, as we learn at the end of the film with accompanying images of the real-life Lomax and Nagasi, the two former adversaries ultimately formed a very close friendship that endured until Lomax’s death in 2012.
Teplitzky brings some of the visual flourishes of Burning Man to The Railway Man, which may not sit well with some viewers given the somewhat austere nature of this true-life tale. However, I didn’t find that it undermined the power of the story in any way. In fact, I think Teplitzky is a talented director who has done a good job in his rendering of the horrors of war and the lasting impact they have on those who experienced them. Firth taps into deep pools of personal suffering, Irvine is equally impressive as the younger incarnation of Lomax and Kidman is certainly much more impressive in this kind of role than in her take on more extreme characters, such as those in Stoker or The Paperboy. Perhaps most importantly, the film does justice to Lomax’s ordeal and explores the notion of reconciliation long before such attitudes became an accepted way of coping with sins of the past.