An ordinary adaptation of a rather extraordinary life, The Railway Man is a respectable if run-of-the-mill take on the story of British soldier Eric Lomax, a WW2 veteran and Japanese prisoner of war.
Based on Lomax’s autobiography, it stars Colin Firth as the titular railway enthusiast, who’s first seen meeting wife-to-be Patti (Nicole Kidman, arguably miscast), on a train in the ’80s.
She departs the carriage, only for Eric, in one of the film’s more fanciful moments, to use his Rain Man-like knowledge of train times to later intercept her on the platform of Edinburgh Waverly.
The trouble is, Eric is still haunted by his days when he was captured and made to work on Thailand’s infamous Death Railway.
Early on, we’re given a sense of what’s to come when he collapses to the floor in overly heated anguish. Eric won’t divulge to an increasingly worried Patti about his POW years, leaving her to seek the truth from his friend and fellow survivor, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård).
From here the film segues into extended prison-camp flashbacks. The younger Eric is played by Jeremy Irvine, who proves credible in scenes of escalating intensity.
The turning point comes, however, when Finlay discovers that the camp’s translator Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada) is still alive – and now working at the country’s Kempeitai War Museum as a tour guide.
With Eric resolving to confront his torturer, director Jonathan Teplitzky cranks up the melodrama, which does Firth few favours. Given that the Oscar-winner has delivered some of his best work recently, it’s a disappointing performance.
It says something too that the most emotive moments come not with the finale, but with the real-life photographs glimpsed in the end credits. It’s here where the outcome of Lomax’s journey hits you, suggesting that his life story would’ve made a better hour-long TV special.
A fascinating life story, The Railway Man is doubtless a better book than a film. Firth and Kidman are not at their best, although Irvine proves his true talent.