Stationed in Singapore just before its fall to the invading Japanese forces, Lomax (Irvine) is captured and held prisoner by the country’s new conquerors. Punished and tortured for building a makeshift radio, whilst all around him his fellow captives are transformed into slaves charged with building the Thai-Burma Railway, Lomax suffers horrific flashbacks well into his later years, much to the distress of new love Patti (Nicole Kidman). Convinced into seeking revenge by brother-in-arms Finlay (a wildly miscast Stellan Skarsgård), Lomax (Firth) comes face to face with one of the POW camp’s interpreters, Takashi Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada), back at the scene of his crime hosting guided tours. But is the meek and retiring Lomax capable of carrying out such brutal eye for an eye-style vengeance?
Though Teplitzky’s intentions for making the film were presumably pure, his Railway Man is a ponderous, plodding affair which too often struggles to marry graphic scenes of torture with empathetic characters that we can genuinely believe in and/or care for. Irvine is the standout exception to the rule, asked to simplistically ape Firth’s now trademark middle-class stammer but occasionally able to break free from his confines and inject some much-needed raw emotion into an otherwise stayed, middling British drama. Firth and Kidman are largely to blame for such humdrumery, struggling to convince as newly-weds who first passionately ‘connect’ on a train trip to sleepy Warrington (need one say more). Furthermore, though Lomax’s well-documented infatuation with steam locomotion is significant in terms of linking past with present, lines such as “I really like trains” hardly convey the depths of his soon-to-be destructive obsession.
Introduced late in proceedings and never treated as anything other than a supporting character, Sanada’s Nagase perhaps needed more time to be bedded in, especially given how pivotal his relationship with Lomax was during both the Second World War and in their twilight years, where they would pass away as great friends. Lomax’s capacity for forgiveness is hugely admirable, but Firth strains to convey the complexity of his myriad feelings towards Nagase – a man, after all, who watched on as the Englishman was broken mentally and physically by his cruel superiors. DoP Garry Phillips does at least ensure things looks presentable, though not even a Hollywood sheen can boost Teplitzky’s The Railway Man into the same league as the one obvious comparable, David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).
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