The 1957 David Lean war epic The Bridge on the River Kwai is a cinema classic, but it is a fictionalized and sanitized version of the torturous conditions Allied prisoners of war endured while being forced to build the Burma Railway by the Empire of Japan during World War II. The true story is that over 12,000 Allied POWs died building the railway as forced labor, and many of those who survived underwent vicious torture and nearly died of starvation. The Railway Man is about an English soldier, Eric Lomax, who worked on the railway and survived, but decades later is unable to cope with the psychological pain. The screenplay was adapted by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Millions) and Andy Paterson from the real-life Lomax’s memoir, and it resulted it an emotionally powerful film.
Though The Railway Man is about the building of the Burma Railway, the film begins decades later. In 1980, middle-aged train enthusiast Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) and Patti (Nicole Kidman) have a chance meeting on a train and soon fall in love. While everything seems to be wonderful at first, Patti discovers that her husband is suffering from psychological trauma related to the torment he endured while working on the Burma Railway. However, because of Lomax’s English stiff upper lip mentality, he has refused to even talk to her about it. The film then jumps between Patti’s attempts to help her husband by speaking with Eric’s old military friend Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård) about the ordeals they survived and flashbacks to the actual horrific experiences that young Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) faced as a prisoner of the Japanese. Lomax finally confronts his emotional problems when Finlay reveals to him that one of the Japanese soldiers responsible for his torture, Takeshi Nagase (portrayed in the 1940s scenes by Tanroh Ishida, and in the 1980s scenes by Hiroyuki Sanada), escaped persecution for his crimes and is giving tours of the railway. Lomax travels across the world to find Nagese, and what he does when he confronts him will surprise and shock you.
The weak link here is Kidman, though through no fault of her own. While her character is essential to the narrative, her performance isn’t and she mainly serves as the audience’s eyes in the 1980 scenes. She is obviously very famous, but she in no way deserves billing over Jeremy Irvine who turns in the performance of his young lifetime as young Lomax. While he was excellent in War Horse (read my review of that here), the emotional spectrum his character demonstrates as he is subjected to physical and mental torture results in a riveting performance. Unfortunately, unlike the poster above, Irvine isn’t even on the DVD/Blu-ray case. I get it, it’s a marketing thing — but it doesn’t mean that it’s not fair.
However, Firth comes close to matching Irvine. Firth’s portrayal of older Lomax is an excellent example of boiling-under-the-surface acting. Firth doesn’t peak until late in the film during the psychological brilliance of the second half of the movie. It leaves the audience guessing what the suddenly verbal aggressive Lomax will do after trying to bury his trauma for over thirty years.
Director Jonathan Teplitzky (Burning Man) is no David Lean, but The Railway Man is obviously not a film of epic scope like The Bridge on the River Kwai. The Railway Man is a tale of survival, but not just having to endure life as a prisoner of war. It is a story of how the physical pain of torture is only the beginning for survivors. Yet there are so many other themes in play here, including the effect war crimes and following orders during war has on the soldiers who implement them and, surprisingly, forgiveness and compassion.
RATING: An emotionally complex film narrative about survival and compassion (9/10).
The Railway Man will be released in the U.S. on DVD and Blu-ray on August 12. It will be available On Demand starting August 1.