There is undoubtedly an incredible true story behind The Railway Man, but while this movie certainly lets you know that, as a film in its own right it’s rather spotty.
The movie follows two periods in the life of Eric Lomax. As a middle-aged man (Colin Firth) he meets and falls in love with Patti (Nicole Kidman), however their marital bliss is severely hampered by the fact he suffers severely from what would now be called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The Railway Man moves between this and Lomax during the Second World War (played by Jeremy Irvine), when he and his fellow soldiers are taken prisoner by the Japanese. They are taken to work on the infamous ‘death railway’ in Thailand (as featured in The Bridge On The River Kwai), where they are expected to help the Japanese, even though building the tracks is costing thousands of lives – most of it forced labour. However when they discover Lomax has built a radio, the Japanese decide he needs to be tortured.
After the war it seems Eric’s experiences as going to destroy him – but then he discovers his main torturer is now working as a guide at place he was tortured and so he decides to return.
It’s a powerful story, but somehow it never quite comes to life on screen – at least in a sustained way. It’s partly because it looks a little too glossy, so it always feels like you’re watching a film. The other issue is the first half of the movie, which doesn’t really work. The romance between Eric and Patti is rushed and twee, and indeed the whole setup of how the war has affected Eric feels badly handled and mannered. You can understand what it wants to say and do, but it’s a little clumsy and it’s difficult to truly feel it.
It’s a great shame as once the drama of the Second World War section has built the film gets much better. Then, when Eric returns to the place of his nightmares, there are some truly excellent scenes between Firth and Hiroyuki Sanada. Unfortunately by then it’s too little too late.
It’s a particular shame as the performances are very good and the story is indeed an incredible one – but it feels like those people behind the movie were a little too interested in giving us a history lesson instead of a movie. It’s an interesting film but the rather mannered first half means the second half lacks the punch it could have had – the result being that a feature-length documentary about Eric Lomax would probably have been as good.
It’s certainly not a bad movie, but it is one of those films where it’s difficult not to feel it isn’t all that it could have been. As a remembrance of a terrible chapter in the past it works, but as a film it’s only okay.
Overall Verdict: The Railway Man tells an incredible true story and it has some very fine performances and a few exceedingly good scenes, but unfortunately a weakly handled first half results in a film that’s okay but not great.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac