Film Review: The Railway Man

Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky's superbly crafted, poignant drama has top-notch performances from Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman and Jeremy Irvine.

The Weinstein Co. paid a reported US$2 million for North American rights to The Railway Man a few days after its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last September. That now seems a canny acquisition, as Jonathan Teplitzky’s affecting and at times harrowing drama has proven its playability in Australia and the U.K.  

Launched on Boxing Day, the saga about a former prisoner-of-war who confronts one of his Japanese tormentors nearly 40 years later has grossed more than A$7.2 million (US$6.4 million) Down Under. Handled by Lionsgate in the U.K., it’s raked in about US$8.4 million.

The compelling subject based on a true story, combined with the cast led by Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman and Jeremy Irvine, and Teplitzy’s taut direction bode well for its chances of attracting mature, upscale audiences in the U.S.

The screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson is adapted from a 1995 memoir by a former British Army signals officer, Edinburgh-born Eric Lomax, who died in 2012 at the age of 93. Firth plays the elder Lomax, a diffident and reserved man who hides his emotional scars and an almost visceral hatred of his enemies. A railway enthusiast, he meets his future wife Patti (Kidman) on a train, a protracted scene handled with humor and grace by the actors.

The narrative flashes back and forth between the horrendous World War II experiences of the young Eric (War Horse’s Irvine, in a performance of blazing intensity, suffering and courage) and the ebbs and flows of the Lomaxes’ marriage.

Tensions rise as Patti discovers her husband’s nightmares stem from being captured by the Japanese in Singapore in 1941 and sent to work on the notorious Burma-Thailand railway, a time of severe hardship, privation and beatings.

Realizing that her husband’s emotional wounds have never healed, she persuades him to return to Thailand to seek out his chief persecutor, interpreter Nagase Takashi (played by Tanroh Ishida as a young man, later by Hiroyuki Sanada). The highly charged, suspenseful confrontation between Lomax and his old nemesis is superbly acted and staged. 

The result is an old-fashioned war film with echoes of The Bridge on the River Kwai, melded with a stirring story of truth, reconciliation and healing.  Only a hardhearted cynic would be unmoved.

Sanada brings a skillfully nuanced performance to his role, given far more dramatic scope than Ishida. Stellan Skarsgård is effective as Lomax’s best friend and former army colleague, Finlay.

Cinematographer Garry Phillips makes a striking contrast between the grey English and Scottish locations and the vividly realized battle scenes and the claustrophobic prison camp. Steven Jones-Evans’ production design and Lizzy Gardiner’s costume design expertly recreate the World War II era. Composer David Hirschfelder’s score strikes the right balance between bombast and subtlety.

Some critics quibbled with the frequent switches between eras, but the tactic is justified in varying the mood and tone so the scenes of torture and suffering don’t become unendurable.

This is the most accessible and commercial film yet from Teplitzky, who broke through with the romantic drama Better Than Sex, followed by Gettin’ Square (a stylish crime thriller that starred Sam Worthington, David Wenham and Timothy Spall) and the misfire Burning Man, which featured Matthew Goode, Rachel Griffiths and Bojana Novakovic.

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