TIFF 2013 Film Review: The Railway Man

Image courtesy of www.tiff.net

Starring: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Stellan Skarsgård, Jeremy Irvine, Sam Reid, Tanroh Ishida

Directed by: Jonathan Teplitzky

Genre: Historical Drama

Choice Quote: “We don’t live…we can’t live. We can’t sleep. We’re an army of ghosts.”

The Hype: Based on The Railway Man, an autobiography by former Second World War British officer Eric Lomax, the film begins in 1980 when the train-obsessed army vet (Firth) meets future wife Patti (Kidman) while riding the rails through rural England.

After they marry, Eric becomes exceedingly distant and erratic, experiencing flashbacks to his time as a Japanese POW following the fall of Singapore, where he and thousands of others slaved in brutal conditions – and some, like Lomax, endured torture – to build the Thai-Burma Railway.

The climax of the film comes when Eric discovers that the Japanese soldier who tortured him, Takashi Nagase (Sanada), is still alive and giving tours of the same facility in which he was imprisoned. Eric confronts Nagase in an effort to gain his own measure of revenge and put an end to his psychological suffering for good.

The Reality: The Railway Man is a unique breed of war film in that it deals with the battle the combatants bring home with them. As Eric notes, “Some of us are still at war.”

Firth, as always, puts in a superb performance as the physically and psychologically tortured Eric, while Kidman’s Patti essentially worries and frets her way through the entire film. It’s not her fault – there’s not much for the character to do but wring her hands and ask her husband what’s the matter.

Sanada as Nagase, and Skarsgård as Eric’s fellow soldier Finlay, both do fine jobs as men still suffering the echoes of war, but a lot of credit has to go to the men who play the younger versions of the combatants in the war flashbacks – in particular Irvine, Reid, and Ishida as Lomax, Finlay, and Nagase respectively.

The pinnacle of the horror Eric suffered gets the slow-reveal treatment over the course of the film, culminating when he comes face to face with his captor. Here, Firth flips the character 180 degrees – from long-suffering victim to the aggressor doling out the punishment. It’s an effective and tense turn that allows Eric to bring closure to nearly 40 years of suffering.

And speaking of “years,” one weird thing about the film is that Firth looks to be in his late 40s to early 50s, but Eric, if you do the simple math, would have been 61 in 1980. All of the actors playing Eric’s fellow war vets fit the bill, but strangely there’s no attempt to make Firth look Eric’s age (in fact, once he shaves his moustache at Patti’s request, he looks even younger).

The Verdict: Age-related quandaries aside, The Railway Man is a gripping take on the concept of a war movie. It’s less Saving Private Ryan and more “what happened to Private Ryan 40 years after the war.” Definitely worth a watch, and an unfortunately all-too-relatable tale for those who’ve ever ventured out to battle.

See it in theatres or rent it?: Theatres

Can the grandkids watch?: It’s too violent for the younger ones, but older ones may get a valuable history lesson.

Rating (out of 5): 4 kernels out of 5