The Railway Man is a Sunday afternoon film. It is pleasant enough sandwiched between a large meal and a brisk fifteen-mile walk to burn off those unnecessary calories. But it shouldn't be pleasant. It should be harsh, raw, eye-opening. But instead of a film that tears open a horrific episode in world history, makes us pledge never to let it happen again and then inspires us with a better way of dealing with soul-crushing cruelty, we are lumbered with a scrappy, stuttering montage that is all a bit too nice, a bit too stiff upper lip.
Eric Lomax is a railway enthusiast (he is at pains to reject the label of 'train spotter'), who meets Patti on a train. In their own stilted ways it is attraction at first sight, albeit reluctantly on Eric's behalf. All seems well with their marriage until Eric's behavior disturbs Patti and he shuts her out emotionally. Desperate to help the man she loves, Patti approaches Finlay, Eric's friend and fellow POW, for information and help. He grudgingly tells her about the abuse they suffered at the hands of the Japanese in WWII as they worked on the infamous Thai/Burma railway, and the impact one Japanese translator, Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada), had on Eric. Circumstances force Eric to face his past, literally and figuratively and he must decide whether to confront Nagase and his own demons.
Bouncing back and forth between the Second World War and the 1980s, The Railway Man presents us with the young Eric's (Irving) physical torture while the older Eric plays out his deeply rooted, emotional torture. Or rather, that is the intention. This is the first problem. The way the story is told doesn't work. It gives the film an odd pace and removes all of the tension that should be there. They should have told the story from A to B.
We spend so much time in grey, dull Britain at a painfully slow pace that any tension that is built up in the flashbacks falls flat. The momentum of the action is wasted. It's boring and most of the scenes in Britain are superfluous. It left me bored and irritated that they sidetracked an inspirational story for a classic Colin Firth story.
It's poorly written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson. It's a 80 minute story told in 116 minutes. There's way too much fat. If they just told us the story straight from start to finish it might have been emotional, but instead they meander around the subject and it becomes tiring to watch.
Director Jonathan Teplitzky manages to pull every single punch. He seems afraid to commit, like a child stuttering but always quitting before the word finally falls out of its mouth. Consequently it is nigh on impossible to feel any meaningful connection with story or characters and I spent almost the entire film detached from it. Only in the final five minutes is there any genuine emotion that allows us a sense of involvement.
Certainly it isn't necessary to see everything in detail. While the astounding 12 Years a Slave refuses to shy away from difficult subjects, Frank Darabont took a different approach with the equally stunning The Shawshank Redemption. Darabont pans his camera away to save us the agony of watching Andy Dufresne's rape but we are left in no doubt whatsoever as to what is happening out of sight. Teplitzky, however, stumbles along so desperate not to offend his audience that The Railway Man becomes a war film with as much impact as a Mills & Boon romance and a love story with as much sentiment as Rambo.
Lastly, I don't believe Firth or Kidman were right for the part. Neither of them seemed like they were hurting at all. Firth has this iconography of romance and his image doesn't suit what's being told on screen. His persona is not angry enough. He doesn't seem like a person who would seek retribution. However, I thought Jeremy Irvine was very good. He nailed Firth's mannerisms and voice and it was heavily believable that he was a young Colin Firth. As for Firth, he should stick to his rom-com's.
The Railway Man is not an awful film at all; it is just a forgettable film about a remarkable story of horror, and the love that enabled redemption and forgiveness. It's an inspirational story told badly.