The Railway Man tells the true story of Eric Lomax (Colin Firth), a troubled man who has never been able to move past the trauma he experienced as a young POW forced to take part in the building of the Thai/Burma railway during WWII. When Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård), a friend and fellow ex-soldier, informs him of the whereabouts of Nagase, a Japanese man who was responsible for some of the horrors he went through, it’s up to Lomax to decide of how he will confront his past. His wife Patricia Wallace (Nicole Kidman) tries her best to understand her husband’s past, while determining how far she is willing to support his potential actions.
There’s no denying the importance of such a story, especially with the knowledge that it’s a true one. The effects of war linger long after its end. The victims lucky enough to survive these horrible times are left with an internal pain that can be impossible to cure, less they tackle their past head on. This is the key argument at the heart of Eric Lomax’s true story; one of hardship, love, revenge and forgiveness. Unfortunately, The Railway Man doesn’t quite deliver on the emotional wavelengths such a story allows for, happy to lay out plot facts without getting to the core emotions driving the plot.
Colin Firth does deliver a good performance here, but his Eric Lomax doesn’t do much more than emit depression and coldness. As understandable as these characteristics are, the character never quite reaches us. The film, purposely, makes us side with his wife’s frustration. We want to know what he went through and what will help, but we aren’t given enough from Lomax to be totally sided with him. The film’s tone too often matches Lomax’s emotional state; gloomy, emotionless and unclear.
Nicole Kidman puts in a decent turn as his supportive wife and Stellan Skarsgård gives a nice performance as a fellow troubled individual.
The film unfolds with flashbacks. While these flashbacks help us understand some of what Lomax – and many others – went through while building the railway, the scenes are presented much too simply and lack enough subtlety to reach the emotional strengths needed. There’s a lack of suspense or intrigue in these developments, robbing certain moments of their potential power. While Jeremy Irvine is quite good as a young Lomax, these trips back to WWII aren’t as enlightening or important as they should be. In fact, it may have been wiser to stay in the present for much longer. Then again, the present doesn’t seem to have much to offer either, at least until the final act rolls along.
The finale goes a long way towards rectifying the road we took to get there. Lomax’s confrontation with Nagase, played very well by Hiroyuki Sanada, does deliver on some of the emotional payoffs promised for so long. Both men have been affected by the past, both men are after restitution of some kind. This leads to a few powerful moments in the ending, that, unfortunately, are too little, too late.
The Railway Man is confidently directed and acted, but viewers will be left wanting a stronger dramatic backbone to warrant the emotions it so clearly strives for.