The Railway Man

“The Railway Man”
Three stars
Directed by: Jonathan Teplitzky
Starring: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgård

The atrocities of war are anything but tranquil and serene. Typically, war movies capture the horrors of battle with garish, high-octane grit. However, the 2013 film “The Railway Man”—based on the autobiography of Eric Lomax, a British army officer who became a Japanese prisoner of war in 1942—chooses a softer palette, and renders a tale of forgiveness, acceptance and perseverance.

Colin Firth plays Eric Lomax—a real-life British army officer and Japanese prisoner of war during World War II—in 'The Railway Man.' Courtesy photo

Colin Firth plays Eric Lomax—a real-life British army officer and Japanese prisoner of war during World War II—in ‘The Railway Man.’ Courtesy photo

Framed by the retelling of events in a current setting, “The Railway Man” opens with a blossoming romance between Eric (Colin Firth) and Patti (Nicole Kidman). The two meet on a railway car, and Patti quickly is enamored with Eric’s quiet intelligence. The reserved man shows an intricate knowledge of the rail system, and before the audience knows it, the two are married. Things quickly take a turn, however, when Eric begins showing signs of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

Confused and desperately seeking to help her new hubby, Patti turns to another British Army officer, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård), for the answers. He divulges all on Eric’s heroic past during their time at a Japanese labor camp throughout World War II. After the British surrendered, they were imprisoned there and forced to work on the Thai/Burma railway. However, he skirts the issue of Eric’s detainment for creating a railway map and a secret radio to provide news to the the servicemen.

The film succeeds in setting up an intriguing plot. It focuses on the aftermath of war—the psychological component—rather than doubling down on grotesque spectacle. Unfortunately, for a film so reliant on interiority, it never fully manages to develop the characters the audience should care about. Nicole Kidman adequately performs as Patti; she showcases subtle emotion that augments the slowly developing film. Despite her emotive abilities, her character falls flat. The audience never fully realizes the desperation one would feel if their husband were going through emotional turmoil and had shut them out. She feels like nothing more than a vehicle to unveil Eric’s backstory by asking questions.

The same goes for Eric. For a character whose story is entrenched in the hardships of war, he comes across as two-dimensional. He’s portrayed only as being heroic. The most depth ever seen is during the third act, when he confronts the interpreter who was a part of his torture—and even that falls flat. War is marred with gray areas, and the film misses a huge opportunity to fully engulf its viewership in the blurred lines during wartime—the lengths humans will go to and the tendency to follow orders no matter what.

While “The Railway Man” fails in fully realizing its characters, it does create an interesting aesthetic. The gray hues of present day perfectly juxtapose the vibrant colors of the war. It’s an interesting choice and seems to shed light on the fact that the real horror of war is psychological rather than physical. As Eric’s mind deteriorates and reverts back to the suffering he endured, the screen becomes coated with a moody atmosphere. Conversely, the war scenes are depicted as being bright and avoid lingering on scenes of violence unless it is completely necessary.

Perhaps the most important component of the “The Railway Man,” the film’s third act, never yields the intensity needed to endcap the film. It’s a complex reflection on the events that occurred: Eric forces the Japanese officer to realize the pain he permitted to be inflicted on him. Because Eric is depicted soley as an innocent, the film loses the ability to have an open discussion between the two men.

Overall, the film is worth a watch. There’s beautiful cinematography and a slow-building tension; however, the film loses its steam by not truly delving into its characters. As a result, the overarching theme of forgiveness doesn’t carry the necessary impact.

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