The Railway Man

The Railway Man (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Eric Lomax (Colin Firth), a railway enthusiast, meets Patti (Nicole Kidman), a nurse, during a train ride from Southampton to Glasgow. Though she is curious about him, clearly very intelligent and good-hearted, Eric appears to be more interested in his timetable than he is about her. His goal is to go around the country to collect railway memorabilia. The two strangers will come to get married eventually, but Patti is unaware of Eric’s experiences in Kanchanaburi—a town in Thailand where British soldiers were tortured, beaten, and abused by the Japanese Imperial Army’s military police during World War II.

“The Railway Man,” directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, is quite small in scope and almost devoid of emotional hyperbole by choice which gives it a slight edge against similar movies that are based on real experiences during wartime. But the picture is not skillfully helmed in that the setup and conclusion are too simplistic and abrupt. Such qualities are not appropriate in a story like this because trauma is all about details—specifics that we may or may not want to look into or think about for too long but we are fascinated by them nonetheless. Generalizations prevent the picture from offering something truly special.

To make the past more interesting than the present is an appropriate move. Because the film’s core is defined by what has happened to Eric in the 1940s, it is only right that we are jolted into paying close attention once the present folds into the grim past. Young Eric is played by Jeremy Irvine beautifully. I was impressed because I believed that, despite the different eras, younger Eric and older Eric is one person. It helps that Irvine has chosen to adopt some of Firth’s signature mannerisms—attributes that the latter seems unable to shed in every role, no matter how good he is. Though he is less experienced than Firth, that makes Irvine not only aware but very smart because he ends up using his co-star’s quirks to his advantage.

Kidman and Firth do share a good level of chemistry, especially when their characters first meet on the train, but a lot of their scenes come off repetitive. Though Kidman does a solid job portraying a woman who is deeply concerned about her husband’s psychological state and well-being, she is not given very much to do other than to look sad. To me, her expressions essentially range from seeing her puppy being stolen and there is nothing she can do about it to seeing her puppy getting kicked in the gut. Kidman has always been that performer who can pull off a silent sadness but still being very beautiful. It is always nice to watch an actor performing on the inside rather than relying on behavior to create a semblance of believability.

It is disappointing that the film does not spend enough time in showing Eric’s relationship with his comrades. Because of this, the young British soldiers around him are rather interchangeable. When a name is mentioned, I found myself having no idea which person is being referred to so I relied on a particular character reacting and missing, for a second or two, the deeper details of the drama. Distractions weaken the power of the film significantly because the tone and pacing are understated to such an extent that any interruption in the delicate balance comes off very noticeable and off-putting.

Based on the screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson, “The Railway Man” is not that impressive from a storytelling standpoint even though the story it wishes to tell is worth hearing. Many people tend to find it difficult to draw the line between the two which is understandable but never excusable.

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