The Railway Man is kind of a revenge movie – I Spit on Your War Grave, if you will – though that’s certainly not obvious from its opening scenes, which are the stuff of your archetypal Richard Curtis-scripted rom-vom-com.
Opening in 1980, we are introduced to Eric Lomax (Colin Firth), a railway nut; a titan of the timetables, a Seneca of the schedules. Having met the lovely Patti (Nicole Kidman, playing a Brit) on – you effing guessed it – a train, the old boy breaks out the same brand of mumbly-bumbly upper middle class charm that Hugh Grant used to dynamite open Julia Roberts’ vault of delights in Notting Hill.
And lo and behold, the duo are duly wed – all in less time than it takes to tap out an aggrieved tweet to the customer services department of Arriva Trains Wales.
Marital bliss is in short supply, however, as Eric is harbouring a secret as big as Nantucket: he’s still so sliced up over his internment and torture as a POW in Asia nearly 40 years earlier that he actually tries to slice up the poor sap who comes to collect the rates. Tormented by visions of his wartime tormentors – chief amongst them the cruel guard Takashi Nagase – it’s apparent Eric is descending into his own self-made circle of hell; a mental prison built from his own terrible memories.
Now, this mental turmoil is not just an onscreen challenge facing Eric Lomax, the character played by Firth, that confirmed favourite of housewives everywhere. It was an actual challenge faced by the real Eric Lomax, who chronicled his experiences in a 1995 memoir, also called The Railway Man and on which this film is based.
That title, incidentally, refers not only to his own passion for trains, but also his and his fellow POWs fate of being put to work on the notorious Burma-Siam Railway – known also as the Death Railway, such was the devastating human cost incurred in its construction.
So while this is a movie of characters and incidents, it is also one of real people and actual events. Of a man who lived through unimaginable hardship at the kind of youthful age when most of us are just about facing up to having to cook our own bacon butties and do our own ironing without making an international incident out of it.
The very subject matter of The Railway Man, therefore, ensures that it deserves a degree of respect from the off in a way that Grown Ups 2, for instance, or Vince Vaughn’s Semen Mix-Up Man do not. As Firth himself noted in an interview with The Telegraph last year, “Here’s a real person, telling a story which has an importance to it. You feel entirely out of your depth… it wasn’t just about making a film.”
Hmm, but isn’t that dangerous talk when what you’re doing, at its core level, is just making a film?
Why, yes indeed. Respect is one thing, and a useful differentiator between say, The Pianist and Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. When it tips over into reverence, however, creative paralysis is in severe danger of setting in. And such is the fate of The Railway Man, where for the most part, a ho-hum staidness is permitted to subsume storytelling vigour and impact.
Oh sure, the movie offers an effective-enough transposition of Eric Lomax’s experiences. The acting is certainly all perfectly solid: Firth is Firth, Kidman is one of the less irritating versions of Kidman, and best of all is War Horse and Great Expectations star Jeremy Irvine, who delivers a more than passable CF imitation in his portrayal of the young Eric.
But director Jonathan Teplitzky’s treatment of his source material lacks the power and emotion which might have allowed it to stand out amongst the already-existing multitude of filmic war memorials – and which might allow you, the viewer, to genuinely connect with the strength and subtlety of emotion Eric feels towards Nagase (who is played as a young man by Tanroh Ishida and later on by Hiroyuki Sanada).
What you’re left with is a movie which, in spite of all the positive things it ultimately says about our powers to forgive without necessarily having to forget, feels just too pedestrian and too polite.