The Railway Man
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 19th January 2014
England, 1980. Eric Lomax – “Not a trainspotter, a railway enthusiast!” – meets a woman on a trip across verdant countryside. These two strangers on a train enjoy a brief encounter as the slightly earnest, middle-aged Lomax (Colin Firth, less dapper than we’re used to but still with glimpses of his charismatic Single Man) is entranced by a comfortably forward Nicole Kidman.
The happy pairing that blossoms soon segues into a nightmare of post-traumatic stress as Lomax’s mind returns to Singapore where he was enslaved by the occupying Japanese in 1942. As his wife battles to understand and heal what happened to her husband, Lomax’s traumatic tale is dramatised on screen as our horrifying discoveries become hers.
Jeremy Irvine (War Horse) nails Firth’s speech and manner in his portrait of the younger Lomax, thrown into a grim Boy’s Own Adventure where the building of transistor radios from scrap brings flashes of joy that are swiftly crushed by Japanese brutality. There are harrowing moments of stress and exhaustion as the Brits are forced to build a railway up into Thailand, depicting a fascinating slice of history of how WWII was played out in South East Asia.
The true story of Lomax’s quest for vengeance (based on his book of the same name) is beautifully photographed, each scene peopled by wonderfully authentic character faces and painfully emaciated bodies.
But somehow, despite nuanced performances (including a notable turn from Hiroyuki Sanada from Sunshine), the pace feels a little plodding under the dedicated direction of relative novice Jonathan Teplitzky. Had this project appeared further down his career track, a little more panache may have propelled us to the end with greater commitment to Lomax’s cause. As it is, when the destination is finally reached, the ultimate revelations somewhat lose their punch.