Ghosts of the past haunt a former British Army officer in Jonathan Teplitzky’s respectful and polished drama.
Based on the bestselling autobiography of Eric Lomax, The Railway Man uses a patchwork of flashbacks to recount the writer’s treatment at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army after the fall of Singapore.
Director Jonathan Teplitzky doesn’t shy away from the most harrowing episodes of Lomax’s story, including a torture sequence which depicts Japanese officers using water-boarding to extract information from their prisoner. Another scene, much closer to home at a Scottish train station, is equally chilling.
While Teplitzky’s picture lands a flurry of punches, it doesn’t quite deliver a knockout blow, even in the final act when Lomax attempts to confront a Japanese officer he holds responsible for the war raging inside his head. Like the smartly-dressed man at the story’s centre, the deepest emotions remain tightly buttoned.
When we first meet ardent train enthusiast Eric (Colin Firth), he is safely ensconced in a first-class carriage, casting nervous glances at the lady sitting opposite.
Eventually he strikes up a conversation with Patricia Wallace (Nicole Kidman) and learns she is visiting the north of England based on recommendations from a friend.
“With all due respect to your friend, if all he’s mentioned is vodka, he’s only scratched the surface of Warrington,” sweetly blusters Eric.
He engineers another meeting with Patti further up the line and they fall in love and marry.
It quickly becomes clear to Patti that there is something in Eric’s past which is troubling him, but her efforts to help are swatted aside.
“You will never again attempt to discuss matters which do not concern you. There’s no objection, I hope?” Eric firmly tells his wife.
So she seeks out best friend Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard), hoping he can reveal the scars of the past and ease her spouse’s suffering.
“A lot of men went through something you can’t even begin to imagine,” Finlay tells her.
Ultimately, he recounts to Patti, and us, the horrors faced by young Eric (Jeremy Irvine) and fellow soldiers at the Sakamoto Butai camp.
The Railway Man chugs back and forth between 1940s Singapore and 1980 Berwick, which makes Teplitzky’s film feel far more sluggish and laboured that it actually is.
Thankfully, Firth and Kidman are both excellent in emotionally demanding roles. Irvine is mesmerising as the younger incarnation of Eric, who is beaten to near-death by the Japanese after a daring attempt to construct a radio from spare parts.
Direction is measured throughout and the tone suitably sombre, honouring the memory of countless young soldiers who resisted their captors, sometimes with their dying breath.