The Railway Man

Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman star in this haunting River Kwai drama

The Railway Man

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Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky. Starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, Jeremy Irvine, Hirojuki Sanada, James Fraser, Tom Hobbs, Ewen Leslie. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson, from the book by Eric Lomax.

In 1942, British Army officer Eric Lomax was interned as a Prisoner of War by the Japanese after allied forces surrendered at Singapore. Over the next three years, he and other POWs were forced to work on the Burma Railway, a project so intense that pre-war plans to construct the railway were dismissed as being too difficult for laborers to complete.

But the “Death Railway” was put into construction during the war years, which resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 laborers (including 12,399 POWs). The story of the construction of the Burma Railway by Allied POWs has been told before, of course, most notably in The Bridge on the River Kwai, widely acclaimed as one of the greatest movies ever made. 

But Lomax’s story, told in his memoir The Railway Man, is most fascinating for what happens 35 years after the war, when he travels back to Thailand to find peace for the torture and psychological trauma that still haunted him all those years later. 

The Railway Man, based on Lomax’s memoir, begins in 1980, as a trains-and-timetables-obsessed Eric Lomax (played by Colin Firth) recounts the story of a chance encounter with Patti (Nicole Kidman). They discuss David Lean’s Brief Encounter – a nice touch, given that Lean was the director of River Kwai (has Lomax seen that film, we wonder) – and of course they fall in love and get married.

Only later does Patti discover the debilitating horrors that still haunt Eric to this day. To try to help him, she seeks out his friend Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård), who served with him in the POW camp during the war. Finlay details the horrors of the POW camp to Patti – and what he knows of Lomax’s torture at the hands of the Kempetai – which are reenacted through flashbacks. 

With echoes of River Kwai and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, the WWII POW scenes are easily the most effective aspect of The Railway Man. There isn’t much new going on here, but Jeremy Irvine (War Horse) is superb as the young Lomax, a railroad expert who comes to the horrific realization of what the POWs are about to be put through in the film’s most haunting scene. 

Kidman has the completely thankless role as Lomax’s wife, who spends her screen time begging Eric to open up and talk to her, and listening to his devastating story, most of which is dictated by the always-excellent Skarsgård. (I also appreciated that despite playing an Englishman, Skarsgård doesn’t attempt any kind of accent; it’s much less distracting this way). Firth doesn’t seem to add much, either, until the heartrending third act when he resolves to face his fears and head back to Thailand.

That’s where the Eric Lomax story really gets interesting, and unfortunately, it’s the one aspect of The Railway Man that doesn’t feel quite right. Unnecessarily over-scripted and faintly unrealistic, the script (by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson) has Lomax seeking outright revenge, when the reality of the situation was likely quite different. 

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But that’s not enough to sink The Railway Man, which is well-crafted by director Jonathan Teplitzky (Gettin’ Square) and beautifully shot by Garry Phillips (Candy). It never captures the horrors of the POW camp as effectively as other contemporary war films have – that’s the one thing that could have really separated this film from River Kwai – but the story of Eric Lomax is a fascinating one that deserves to be seen.

Also opening this week:

  • Beauty and the Beast (showtimes | IMDb), a new take on the classic story from director Christophe Le Gans (Brotherhood of the Wolf). Screening in a Czech-dubbed version in Prague cinemas. 
  • Viva la libertà (showtimes | IMDb), an Italian drama from writer-director Roberto Andò. Screening in Italian with Czech subtitles.

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