Nothing like a true story to tug at the heartstrings. The Railway Man tells the story of Eric Lomax (Colin Firth as the older Lomax, Jeremy Irvine as his younger self), a man with a troubled past living a haunted life in the present in a film that manages to leave its mark quite effectively.
Obsessed with trains, Lomax is a war veteran living a quiet life by the seaside in his older years. The film doesn’t take long to introduce us to his terrors though. After a cute encounter on (no surprises) a train with his wife-to-be Patti (Nicole Kidman), the two get hitched and seem happy. Once the night terrors become clear to Patti though, she begins to question what happened in Eric’s time as a POW in Singapore, where he was made to help build the Thai-Burma Railway. The project, deemed ‘inhuman’ in its undertaking, saw thousands of Allied soldiers die in the war, alongside even more Asian workers. Lomax’s time there, as a captured engineer, is one of torture and despair. In particular, Japanese translator Takashi Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada/Tanroh Ishida as older/younger Nagase respectively) is present throughout his torture and becomes the object of Lomax’s thoughts, hatred and terror.
Without spoiling the plot, it can best be summarised as a story of two distinct halves. Those scenes featuring Lomax’s war experiences are jumped to quite frequently throughout the early parts of the film as we establish the broken man of the present. While fairly convincing, the impact is not completely effective. Firth does a standout job but feels somewhat underused at the start with a focus instead on Patti and his friend Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård). A rather sudden and somewhat strange escalation of the plot drives Firth back into the spotlight for the second half that seems him travel to his old prisoner camp and find Nagase. This strangely swift change of pace detracts from the believable nature of the story, based on true events or not.
However, with Firth back on screen and the full details of his past revealed, the film winds up to a powerful conclusion. Indeed, watching the interplay of Firth and Sanada is superb; a brilliant development of their relationship is matched by two actors delivering strong and emotional performances. The high point is by far the ending, a moment of incredible revelation. It is just a shame it is not completely supported by the first two-thirds of the story to deliver what would otherwise be a truly impressive film.
Nonetheless, we are treated to Firth showing us why he is such a respected actor. Sanada adds another string of Western film to his already well established bow of Japanese filmography and capping a busy year that saw him star in The Wolverine and 47 Ronin. Director Jonathan Teplitzky also makes a name for himself on the wider stage with his first cast of big scalps that may see him become a name to watch in the future.
All in all, The Railway Man is pretty good once it gets started and packs a powerful ending. Let down at the midpoint somewhat, it falls slightly short of probably receiving any lasting recognition. Thankfully, the strong cast help carry this true story straight to the heart.