The Railway Man (2014)

The Railway ManEric 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.



War Horse (2012)

Based on the hugely successful play, War Horse tells the story of Joey, an unfortunately named horse, sold into military service at the outbreak of World War One, and his adventures and relationships with numerous owners throughout the course of the war. Which is where the film’s problems start, because with the focus on a horse and with a succession of human protagonists dipping in and out of the story as Joey comes through, it often feels much more like we’re watching a succession of episodes of a TV series in the vein of Lassie or Old Yeller, rather than a coherent movie.

In fact, the comparison with dog-based TV series is somewhat unfair, because while dogs, kangaroos and even dolphins have a range of easily recognisable expressions, horses are the animal kingdom’s equivelent of Keanu Reeves. Where we’ve had equine protagonists previously, our connection has been fostered through the people with whom they interact. The lack of consistent human company in War Horse – even our ‘lead’ actor (Jeremy “Trench Foot” Irvine as Albert Narracott) is only in about half of the film – makes it almost impossible to connect with anything on screen.

To be fair to War Horse, while the movie as a whole is difficult to engage with, there are some sequences that do work quite well. In particular, a rendezvous between a British and a German soldier in No-Man’s Land is solidly entertaining, as is a sequence featuring a young French girl and her elderly grandfather, but these work because of the humour that runs through them. Something seriously lacking from the remainder of the film.

Indeed, for the most part, War Horse is so po-faced and sincere that it feels almost rude to enjoy it. As a result of this, sequences that should be thrilling, like a cavalry charge into a German camp, are simply dull – although, this does lead to the most interesting shot in the film, as riderless horses charge into the fores. Again, this isn’t helped by the lack of engagement with the characters. At the point in the film the charge occurs, we have spent so little time with the riders that their success or failure is about as important to the audience as the colour of the tiles in the cinema toilet.

Compounding the film’s problems is a terrifically clumsy script. Because every twenty minutes or so we are introduced to an entirely new set of characters, a huge proportion of the dialogue is used to explain who they are, and how they relate to one another. Admittedly it could have been far worse, but it often sucks the momentum out of the movie, and frequently causes otherwise decent performances to fall flat. Again, something not helped by the film’s forced sincerity.

In spite of all this, War Horse isn’t a terrible film. It’s not even a bad one, it’s simply forgettable. About a decade ago, Steven Spielberg created Band of Brothers. Ten years before that, Richard Curtis was responsible for one of the most entertaining and poignant depictions of trench warfare with Blackadder Goes Forth. The fact that they phoned in this waste of time is utterly disappointing.

Reviewed by @Montimer.