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) died while working on the extremely difficult 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 film moves back and forth in time between the young Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) during wartime and the middle-aged Lomax (Colin Firth) as he lived in the early 1980s. The elder Lomax falls in love with Patty Wallace (Nicole Kidman), who gradually comes to realize how broken the former officer remains from the trauma 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 was made over as a tourist attraction — presenting Lomax with the unlikely chance to confront his past.
Essentially an internal psychological drama, Teplitzky's film sometimes seems like it's working awfully hard to tell a story better suited to the printed page. Crucial liberties were taken with Lomax's account 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 his story. The flashback scenes are vivid and appropriately gut-wrenching, and strong lead performances elevate the film when Teplitzky's choices fall short. 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 Sir Laurence Olivier and Richard Harris. For what may be the first time, the 46-year-old Kidman finds herself playing an unabashedly middle-aged character. She rises to the occasion with a deep appreciation of Wallace's 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. — KEN KORMAN