During the forced march to Thailand following the fall of Singapore in 1942, captured British soldier Eric Lomax asks a Japanese guard, “What river is this?” It is the Kwai, immortalized in the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai. But The Railway Man is a very different kind of movie from that World War II classic, and while the conditions faced by Eric and tens of thousands of others POWs were worse than what the 1957 movie portrayed, the brunt of Japanese atrocities occur offscreen. But this is Eric’s story, not a war movie per say, though half of it concerns his time in a brutal POW camp. And Eric’s story, adapted from Lomax’s acclaimed autobiography, is about healing, not fighting.
The film does a harrowingly effective job of indicating the torture—including prolonged waterboarding—that Eric miraculously survived. For his healing to occur, he must return, physically and spiritually, to the place where he was broken in body (which mended) and spirit (which did not). For most of the film, Eric refuses to even acknowledge that he is in pain.
In its spare and subdued fashion, The Railway Man takes on a lot—it’s also a love story—with mixed success. Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky from a script co-written by the protean Frank Cottrel Boyce, the film presents Eric’s life in past and present, with Jeremy Irving (better than he was in War Horse) playing Eric as a mechanically inclined young soldier, and Colin Firth (who specializes in introversion) playing him as a withdrawn and embittered middle-age man.
One thing Eric’s captivity did not diminish was his love of railroads, despite his having barely survived forced labor on the notorious Death Railway through Burma, even before he was put in solitary confinement for building a radio receiver. Most of his companions did not survive, but one who did is Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard), who is Eric’s only friend. And then a train brings someone new into his life: Patti (Nicole Kidman), a former nurse who tolerates his emotional abuse while encouraging him to resolve his long-festering trauma. Their marriage is far less involving than young Eric’s travails, but Patti is the force that gives Eric the strength to face his ultimate demon: the Japanese officer who tortured him. Takashi Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada) is alive and well and his location becomes known to Eric.
The Railway Man is thoughtfully written and well acted, with evocative cinematography and the occasional moment of piercing insight. Yet its climactic act of mercy (which might be unbelievable if it wasn’t a true story) is weakened by the brief screen time given to Nagase, and more so, by the split time frame: Older Eric resolutely finds closure, but the bravely geeky young soldier he once was is gone forever.