The sight of Allied prisoners of war (POW) working on a difficult construction job under direction of their Japanese captors is a familiar one to movie fans: British director David Lean’s 1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai won seven Oscars and is widely considered a classic. That purely fictional film and the novel on which it was based were inspired by the real-life construction of the Burma Railway — widely known as the “Death Railway” — during World War II, in which more than 100,000 people (most of whom were Asian civilians) lost their lives to the near-impossible task of building a rail line through Thailand to Burma in dense and hilly jungle. No one would confuse Lean’s Hollywood-style epic with The Railway Man. Based on the autobiography of British Army Officer Eric Lomax, The Railway Man reveals the true horrors of the Burma Railway by focusing on one man’s quest to exorcise his resulting personal demons.
Director Jonathan Teplitzky’s The Railway Man moves back and forth in time between the young Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) during the war and the middle-aged Lomax (Colin Firth) as he lived in the early 1980s. The elder Lomax meets and falls in love with Patty Wallace (Nicole Kidman), who only gradually comes to realize how broken the former officer remains from the traumas of his time as a POW, especially the torture inflicted upon him by Japanese officers. One of his captors resurfaces as a tour guide at the old POW camp and railway — which have been made over as a tourist attraction — presenting Lomax with the unlikely chance to confront his own past.
Essentially an internal psychological drama, Teplitzky’s film sometimes seems like its working awfully hard to tell a story that may be better suited to the printed page. Crucial liberties were taken with Lomax’s true-life story to maximize the film’s dramatic impact, and it’s all a bit too polished to sit comfortably with the physical and emotional rawness of the story. But the flashback scenes are vivid and appropriately gut-wrenching, and strong lead performances elevate the film when Teplitzky’s choices fall short. Colin Firth has not been widely seen since his award-winning performances in A Single Man and The King’s Speech, and his elegant and understated work has begun to recall that of fellow Brits and all-time greats like Laurence Olivier and Richard Harris. For what may be the first time, the now 46-year-old Kidman finds herself playing an unabashedly middle-aged character. She rises to the occasion with a deep appreciation of her character’s own emotional trauma.
Because The Railway Man was in development for almost 15 years, it was based not only on Lomax’s writings but also on his extensive personal input at the twilight of his life. He lived long enough to visit the set of the film, but did not get to see the finished product. That may explain how The Railway Man — despite its shortcomings — manages to deliver a fairly convincing meditation on the value of forgiveness and its potential for healing old wounds. That lesson may not be new, but it has stood the test of time.
The Railway Man opens today at the Canal Place and Elmwood Place theaters.