‘The Railway Man’ is not Colin Firth’s finest hour

McClatchyApril 25, 2014 

Colin Firth, center, struggles with his past as a prisoner of war in “The Railway Man.”

JAAP BUITENDIJK/THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY

In Hollywood parlance, they “meet cute.” He stumbles into her first-class seat on the train to Edinburgh, Scotland.

She (Nicole Kidman) is a bit taken aback, but only for a moment. She offers, way too soon, that she’s “newly single.” He is bookish, awkward, slow to pick up on that. His encyclopedic knowledge of rail schedules gives away that he’s really into trains.

His small talk is pattering on about the history of every village, hamlet and landmark they pass by.

“Lancaster — known as the hanging town.”

He is smitten, she is intrigued. So it’s not really a coincidence when he runs into her again on a home-bound train some days later. Thus begins an adorable love affair and marriage.

But Eric has night terrors, paralyzing seizures of fear set off by a phrase, a song on the radio. Patti, who loves him, needs answers.

“The Railway Man” is about the horrors the people who lived through the “Keep calm and carry on” era didn’t talk about. This slow, uneven drama is a different sort of British prisoner of war movie. And even if it stumbles on its way to its fairly obvious, politically correct conclusion, it’s still worthwhile as a closer read on history than the decades of World War II movies that preceded it.

Because it’s good to remember that the construction of the bridge over the River Kwai wasn’t all British stiff upper lips, jolly-good-sport-playing head games with the Japanese, whistling the “Colonel Bogey March.”

For those who lived through it — prisoners of war worked to death as slave labor under inhuman conditions in the jungles of Thailand — it was a fetid, living hell.

Patti Lomax has to pry information out of Eric’s peers, the men who meet to not talk about what they went through together building that Thai-Burma Railway. Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) is dismissive, but eventually he fills her in on what they all have been living with for 40 years (the movie is set in 1980).

In a long flashback, we see the shameful, seemingly premature surrender of Singapore, which Winston Churchill called “the worst disaster” in British military history. The young radio operators, Eric and Finlay (played as young men by Jeremy Irvine and Sam Reid), pocket vacuum tubes and other radio parts as they line up to march into captivity. But once there, they see the awful consequences of getting caught doing that.

Director Jonathan Teplitzky cast emaciated men to play many of the prisoners, and took care to get the Japanese right, too, historically. These weren’t the best and the brightest. They were small men, physically, mentally and spiritually, raised on a diet of rice and racism. And they behaved barbarically.

“The Railway Man” vividly, if unevenly, re-creates that horrific past. And then Teplitzky and the screenwriters very clumsily document the way the real Eric Lomax came to terms with it and his chief tormentor, a secret police interpreter/interrogator, played by Tanroh Ishida in the war scenes and Hiroyuki Sanada in the 1980 “present.” Those scenes, whatever their moral rectitude, ring hollow and false. The actors bring no conviction to them.

Shifts in attitude and tone are abrupt, as Firth plays Lomax as utterly broken, teetering on the brink of madness at one moment, lucid and calculating the next. Kidman is beguiling in the courtship scenes, given too little to play in the “Why won’t you talk to me?” ones.

Skarsgard brings gravitas to his fellow survivor role, and the younger players — Irvine, Reid and Ishida — acquit themselves nicely playing characters who are either dehumanized or dehumanizers.

But “The Railway Man” is more interesting as history rewritten than as the moral parable this true story became. As a generation dies out and the tests of those who lived through that era are forgotten, movies like this, even the less satisfying ones, help us remember and appreciate the great wrongs, the scars and the healing power of forgiveness in the face of World War II’s unspeakable cruelty.

THE RAILWAY MAN

H H H 1/2 I

Cast: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgard, Jeremy Irvine, Sam Reid, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tanroh Ishida

Director: Jonathan Teplitzky

Running time: 1:54

Rated: R; disturbing prisoner of war violence

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