The Railway Man is the story of Eric Lomax, a signals engineer who was captured by the Japanese in WWII and forced to work on the infamous Thai-Burmese 'Death Railway'. It is a story I'm largely familiar with thanks to personal interest - I had an 'uncle' (technically I imagine a great or even great great uncle, our family tree is an incredibly gnarly, many rooted one) who worked on the railway called Tommy who I remember vaguely as being a loving and kind hero figure for the infant me - and to the various ways in which Lomax's tale has been told through the years; most specifically the book of the same name and the Everyman film for VJ Day 1995, Prisoners in Time, which starred John Hurt as Lomax, and which I taped for my uncle's wife, Nellie that year along with all the BBC commemorative programmes.
The real Eric Lomax
This latest adaptation is from a screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson, and tackles Lomax's life from two time periods, his later years which sees Colin Firth wrestling silently with PTSD to the horror of his second wife Patti, played by Nicole Kidman, and during his brutal imprisonment itself, in which he is played by Jeremy Irvine who uncannily adopts the vocal inflections and physical appearance of a young Firth.
Firth himself delivers a brilliant and deeply affecting central performance that is all painful secret suffering, honour, courage and kind heartedness, and it's reassuring to see he hasn't totally slid into the rut many actors find themselves in after having bagged the Best Actor Oscar. When placed alongside a similarly impressive Hiroyuki Sanada, as Lomax's former captor and tormentor Takeshi Nagase in the crucial two hander scenes, the film really is at its emotive pinnacle.
It's fair to say Nicole Kidman, however middle aged, dowdy and '1980' the costume and make up team wish to make her appearance, is a little out of place here but she has a quiet chemistry that is palpable with Firth. The only jarring note is left to that great Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård as Firth's fellow former POW Finlay. It's not clear what accent he's trying to do (nor is it clear what accent Sam Reid is doing as his younger self) but it's not English and it detracts from the importance of his character to the piece. An importance which is, I must stress, entirely fictitious; Finlay is based on a composite of fellow POWs Lomax knew, but there was no one character who committed suicide or spurred Lomax into seeking revenge against his former torturer. Lomax himself saw the article about Nagase and travelled to Burma for closure with the man, not for revenge - although he did admit to confessing to Patti that he would like to do him harm for his past actions. When you consider this role was specifically created for the film, it really does make one wonder just why they'd chose an actor whose accent was so jarring!
To take the railway metaphor, this is not a steady journey, in fact it's occasionally quite disruptive. The first 10/15 minutes would lull you into thinking you're about to watch a slightly 'grey pound' romance with it's talk of Brief Encounter and its unlikely romance developing across a British Rail journey from Crewe to Edinburgh, but it's a clever false sense of security that hits you with the true horrors of PTSD, and its effects on a home life, some time later. I can however concede that some may find this 'shunting' a little disjointing. But you'd have to be heartless not to be moved overall by this remarkable true life tale.
And there's not many films out there that extol the virtues of Warrington!