‘The Railway Man’: a WWII story of remarkable forgiveness
Based on the memoir of a WWII prisoner of war, “The Railway Man” showcases Colin Firth’s mastery of the agonized protagonist.
Seattle Times movie critic
‘The Railway Man,’ with Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Irvine, Stellan Skarsgård, Hiroyuki Sanada, Sam Reid. Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, from a screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson, based on the memoir by Eric Lomax. 108 minutes. Rated R for disturbing prisoner of war violence. Several theaters.
No one plays quiet agony quite like Colin Firth, and in “The Railway Man” he provides a master class in that emotion. In the early scenes of the film, set around 1980, we know him only as a World War II veteran and railway enthusiast who collects train timetables and keeps mostly to himself, yet seems to come to life in the presence of a lovely woman (Nicole Kidman) he meets on a journey. But something about Firth’s carriage, his not-quite-stammer, a sadness in the lines of his mouth and eyes even during his mist of a smile, tells us that all isn’t right, even as Eric and Patti fall in love and marry. Soon enough, we (and she) learn: Eric was tortured, viciously and repeatedly, as a prisoner of war at a Japanese labor camp. He has never spoken of it, yet he cannot move beyond it.
The film, based on the real Eric Lomax’s memoir, then unfolds as a series of increasingly disturbing flashbacks, as we gradually learn what was done to Eric on the Thai/Burma “Death Railway,” and how he finally found peace, through a fraught reunion with his chief tormentor (Hiroyuki Sanada). The truth of what happened to him is devastating; the truth of how he found forgiveness in his soul is astonishing.
If “The Railway Man” feels just a little underwhelming, it isn’t due to its story — which is remarkable — but to a certain restraint in the filmmaking. You wish Kidman’s character were written with more nuance; you wish Firth, who disappears during the flashbacks (Eric is played as a young man by Jeremy Irvine), were on screen more; you both recoil from the torture scenes and realize how necessary they are. Nonetheless, it’s impossible not to be moved by this man (who died in 2012, just before “The Railway Man” was completed) and his story. “Sometime,” says Eric, in his quiet way, “the hating has to stop.”
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org