Based on the autobiography of the same name, The Railway Man is the touching true story of Eric Lomax, a British soldier in WWII, who went away to war and never truly returned. Colin Firth is well suited and comfortable in the role of the endearingly gawky Englishman, which we are so used to seeing him in, but he is fascinating and evocative in conveying the anguish of a man paralysed by inescapable days spent in torture.
Triggered by the attempts of his wife, Patti (Nicole Kidman), to connect with him and understand his past, Firth’s character struggles throughout to reconcile his need for revenge on his captors. Lomax is closed-off and gripped by harrowing memories pulling him from reality – represented cinematically with the use of flashbacks, suddenly cutting between the war many years ago, and the war Lomax continues to fight within his own mind.
Unfortunately, perhaps as a by-product of this narrative reliance on flashbacks, there is something unbelievable about the romantic element of the film, with little real basis for their love. Yet, the problem goes further than that; they seem too… cordial and dispassionate. They say all the right things to each other but I just didn’t buy it. Kidman is given little to work with in the role of Patti, serving more as a catalytic plot device for Firth’s self-reflective journey than as a developed and intriguing character in her own right.
Making these elements of the movie secondary is natural considering the subject matter, however. The film is, of course, more concerned with telling the story of unimaginable horror and trauma experienced by soldiers.
Beaten, tortured, encaged and enslaved as prisoners of war. There were times when it felt brooding and indulgent, but just as it begins to drag; viewers are jolted awake by startling scenes of brutality towards young Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) and his comrades.
While much of the cinematography is striking, punctuated by captivating wide shots teeming with dirty-faced, emaciated soldiers, for a war film, the music is underwhelming and uninspiring; a wasted opportunity. More effective, though, is the motif of counting and time. This permeates and adds another layer to the film; running from the very opening, of a tormented Firth muttering “Hickory Dickory Dock”, down to little moments, when all that can be heard is the counting down of a kitchen timer.
Ultimately, though somewhat flawed, the film will win you over in sudden, brilliant images and in the final five breath-taking minutes. The Railway Man is a touching portrayal of the immense human propensity for heroism, emotional strength and forgiveness where seemingly impossible. This film is visually and emotionally compelling. This film is important.