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THE RAILWAY MAN – The Review

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RAILWAY MAN is a tale of revenge and redemption in the trappings of a WWII melodrama. The true tale jumps back and forth between 1942 and 1980 to tell the story about one man forced to deal with his horrible memories of the atrocities of war. THE RAILWAY MAN is a sober, well-meaning picture that aims to raise serious issues about truth and justice, but it’s ultimately undone by its own earnestness and predictability.

In 1980 Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) is a socially awkward rail enthusiast (not a trainspotter, he clarifies) who travels around the UK with a detailed knowledge about train timetables and British towns.  Eric meets nurse Patti (Nicole Kidman) on a train and after a whirlwind romance, they are married. But after the honeymoon Eric is waking up in the night sweating and screaming – it’s the emotional distress caused by his treatment at the hands of Japanese prison guards during his WWII days (I think we now call this post-traumatic stress disorder). He refuses to confide in his wife the details so she seeks advice from one of Eric’s old war comrades (Stellan Skarsgård).

THE RAILWAY MAN then flashes back to 1942 where the young Eric (Jeremy Irvine) is a junior signals officer in the British Army during the Fall of Singapore. He’s forced to surrender and as a Prisoner of War, is sent to hard labor blasting rock and laying tracks to help build the notorious Thai-Burma Railway, aka ‘The Death Railway’, a 259 mile line from the jungles of Bangkok to Rangoon. When the Japs discover that he has built a (one-way) radio, Eric is taken away and waterboarded, then tortured by a young Imperial Kempeitai (secret police) officer, Takashi Nagase (Tanroh Ishida). Jumping forward again to 1980, Eric goes back to Thailand to visit the camps where he was a prisoner…….and guess who’s his tour guide? It’s his cruel ex-nemesis Nagase! Victim and victimizer trade places. Will Eric be able to let go of his anger and hatred and turn the other cheek, or will he extract bloody revenge?

THE RAILWAY MAN is a well-mounted prestige production – everything here is respectable and solid and director Jonathan Teplitzky toggles between the two eras efficiently. The performances are the kind of somber work you expect from the stars involved – that is, if no one’s pushing them to be anything more than what you expect. Not to diminish Eric Lomax’s story, but the film lacks flavor and momentum and did not grab me – watching it is a bit like eating dry toast. The 1942 flashback scenes are the strongest and contain a couple of well-built suspense sequences, especially those involving the creation of the radio but I would like to have learned more about the Thai-Burma Railway and never got a sense of the hellish conditions involved in its creation. One sees the violence of crazed Japanese guards but the outcome of that violence is barely there. I kept thinking of THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, which covered some of this same ground so much better. When you contemplate how long Eric kept his hatred and rage against Nagase bottled up, their eventual confrontation seems tepid. What he will do when they finally meet makes for a compelling moral dilemma, but even that doesn’t surface until way late in a film that isn’t nearly as weighty as it wants to be.

Firth’s broken Eric often comes off as just mopey and depressed, but he and Jeremy Irvine are well-cast. Both actors share the same speech patterns, mannerisms, and other characteristics, convincingly playing the same man (a tough trick –  MONEYBALL and GREAT GATSBY used younger actors for its star’s flashbacks less effectively). Kidman is fine but mostly disappears after the first half hour. Eric Lomax’s legacy and courage are admirable and his story is one that should be shared, but the plodding and pedestrian THE RAILWAY MAN barely makes it out of the station.

2 1/2 of 5 Stars

THE RAILWAY MAN opens in St. Louis April 25th at Landmark’s Frontenac Theater

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