The Railway Man (2014)
January 15, 2014 Leave a comment
Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) is — and has always been — a railway enthusiast, and it’s while travelling from Glasgow by train that he meets his future wife, Patti (Nicole Kidman). All seems well to begin with, but Eric’s troubles soon drive a wedge between them. His passion for railways may have survived the war, most of which Eric (Jeremy Irvine) spent in captivity, forced to work on the Thai-Burma Railway, but other aspects of his personality were not so lucky. With Lomax refusing to discuss his time in Singapore, Patti turns to Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård), a close family friend and ex-prisoner of war for answers.
There comes a point during The Railway Man, Jonathan Teplitzky’s adaptation of Eric Lomax’s bestselling autobiography, when you begin to wonder if Jeremy Irvine is ever going to show up. Not that it’s a chore to spend time in the company of Colin Firth’s older incarnation — not at all; he’s never anything less than compelling — but as he meets and marries Patti, and attends gatherings with fellow veteran Finlay, his traumatic past hangs over the film, impatient and demanding attention. The Railway Man refers to both the young POW forced to build railways, and the older veteran taking solace in riding them, yet the film seems weighted unfairly towards the latter.
Firth is brilliant as Lomax, a man attempting to be loving and composed for those around him but haunted by past horrors that they will never understand. It’s a character that he does very well, and you don’t have to look very hard to find precedent in A Single Man or even The King’s Speech. That said, as an exploration of the more longitudinal effects of war on the human psyche it retains some semblance of novelty. Irvine, on the other hand, is quite the revelation, not only delivering a performance that is impressive in and of itself, but which also perfectly complements Firth’s own work. The War Horse actor has clearly done his research, and his understanding and imitation of Firth’s mannerisms is truly uncanny.
It’s not just the performances that convince, either, with the sets and costumes deserving praise too. It might seem like a strange thing to mention, but with the film jumping between two time periods, and two continents, creating a convincing context is incredibly important. So much goes unsaid in the film, particularly by Firth, that the onus is on Teplitzky to produce a world that is to a certain extent self-explanatory. Set decorations in Lomax’s house tell you everything you need to know about the character, while the Burmese jungle (actually Queensland, Australia) is rendered so inhospitable that you don’t have to see as much violence to fully appreciate the hardship.
Hair and make-up can’t do it all, however, and if there’s an issue with The Railway Man it’s that it leaves a little too much to the imagination. It’s clear that Lomax is a damaged man, but when the bailiffs show up at his door you can’t help but wonder just how the man has scraped by in the years following his return to civilian life and preceding his marriage to Patti. This time period is positively spoon fed, however, when compared to the section spent in Asia. We are thrust into the conflict just as Lomax and company are captured by the Japanese, and the next thing you know they’re at work on the railway. The film could have perhaps done with less time spent making rice in Berwick-upon-Tweed and more time in the war-torn east.
The balance between stories might be slightly off and the 15 certificate may seem a little lightweight given the subject matter (while the two uses of “Hickory Dickory Dock” are never adequately explained), but overall The Railway Man is a strong adaptation of a much loved book. Firth and Irvine are ably supported by Kidman, Skarsgård and Hiroyuki Sanada, and together they bring to life a narrative that would be almost unbelievable if it weren’t based on a true story.