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TIFF Review: 'The Railway Man' Starring Colin Firth & Nicole Kidman

by Kevin Jagernauth
September 8, 2013 9:14 AM
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The Railway Man

"The Railway Man" tells the true story of a World War II veteran mentally broken by his experiences in the war, living a lonely, isolated life, and trying to come to grips as best he can with the terror and memories that still haunt his mind. But you'd be forgiven after watching the opening portion of the film for mistaking it with a Colin Firth romantic comedy, set against the backdrop of England's lovely countryside. Going full adorkable, complete with mussed hair and oversized glasses frames (which we suppose would make him a hipster now), Eric (Firth) is at first glance a lovable, mild-mannered eccentric. He keeps to himself, but he's obsessed with trains—souvenirs, schedules, model numbers—he knows it all. But when Patti, played by Nicole Kidman, crosses into his single-minded field of vision, it's understandable that he finds something new worth paying attention to.

The Railway Man, Colin Firth

Aside from the opening, "The Railway Man," as directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, doesn't stray too far from the conventional in telling what turns out to be a harrowing story of survival and courage in the face of unspeakable brutality. And certainly, the seriousness of this story doesn't need any stylistic ornamentation. With Eric and Patti swiftly married not very long after first meeting, the middle-aged couple happily settle into domesticity, or so it seems. It isn't long until Eric's troubles (what we'd now call post-traumatic stress disorder) rear their ugly head. It can't be predicted when they'll arrive, but when they do, it leaves him crippled on the floor, writhing in mental agony in what is an all-too-real and palpable head trip into a past he would simply like to forget. And he's certainly not willing to share what he's going through, not even with his own wife.

Knowing there is a good man trapped in the cage of memories he can't work his way out of, Patti reaches out to Eric's friend Exposition Device Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård) who reluctantly, and then openly, gives her the background she so desperately needs. She learns that Eric was part of a contingent of British soldiers, working as POWs for the Japanese, who were forced to build the Thailand-Burma Railway. Under conditions so harsh that the project was nicknamed the Death Railway, Eric and his fellow soldiers did their best to withstand a grueling, punishing and nearly unlivable situation. But they continued to resist in small ways, and managed to build a crude radio so they could get any news they could of the war raging around the globe. But when that radio is discovered, Eric steps up to the be fall guy, saving his fellow soldiers from harsh beatings or worse. As a result, he goes through nothing short of unimaginable torture, with the bulk of it coming from one particularly sadistic guard. And when Patti is finally given the full picture by Finlay, she helps Eric confront his past directly, so they can try and have a future together.

If you don't know the true story, or haven't read the full synopsis, we won't give up too much of the third act but essentially, the picture leans toward—but doesn't quite fully embrace—a will-he-or-won't-he thriller-type scenario. Divided between past and "present" (which in the film is the early 1980s), Teplitzky spends a considerable time on flashbacks detailing Eric's experiences at the hands of the Japanese, and it's certainly every bit as hard to watch as you might think. But these sequences aren't gratuitous. Instead, they provide a framework for the fear Eric still lives with, and the context to understand how everything that happened could break him spiritually, a horror worse than any physical harm that came to him. 

The Railway Man

Certainly, this is all dealt with by everyone involved with the utmost respect and seriousness toward the subject matter, but that also makes "The Railway Man" somewhat safe. For all the assuredness behind the camera and in front of it, there's very little in way of edge or even, surprisingly, emotion. Certainly, both Eric and Patti feel angry, hurt, astonished and more, but the movie itself is void of that kind of sentiment. For all the awful history it delves into, the picture has difficulty in feeling much about it. 

And perhaps more curiously, there is a shocking lack of conflict between Eric and his wife, Patti. The script from Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson (based on Lomax's own memoir) celebrates Patti's steadfast determination to stick by Eric's side, but there is not one moment of doubt that she'll be there or even any struggle she may have in living with a man who may never heal. There is an untapped amount of drama in that subject alone, but it sadly goes unexplored.

Ultimately, "The Railway Man" is as much about the strength it takes to accept the past as it is about the honor it takes to forgive someone, no matter how cruel the crime. "War leaves a mark," Finlay says, but whether that scar bleeds you for the rest of your life or is stitched together with the aforementioned qualities could be the difference between living in the now, or being forever stuck in a battle that has long since stopped being fought. "The Railway Man" transmits these themes with ease, but in doing so, forgets that coming to that kind of maturity sometimes requires laboring long and hard through tracks of relationships, memories and self-doubt that some people who don't have the convenience of a meet-cute on a train to solve. [B-]

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  • gegana | April 7, 2014 8:34 PMReply


  • willy jerk-off | September 14, 2013 6:33 PMReply

    Have you seen that gorgeous blonde bird on the internet who looks like a young version of Nicole Kid-girl ?, i think shes a polish or russian bird, she gets buggered and sodomized regularly in all the porno movies, like i said her resemblence to the young Nicole is quite astonishing.

  • the sneering (homo-phobic) snob | September 14, 2013 6:26 PMReply

    I want to bugger Nicole Kid-girl (as the bird was in 1985 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously). By the way, i had to change the second syllable of her surname because of my murderous homo-phobia.

  • eddie lydecker | September 14, 2013 6:23 PMReply

    Colin Firth is a bloody load of old rubbish simply because he is British ! ! !.

  • JagernauthUFWit | September 10, 2013 11:50 AMReply

    God, I'm such an IGNORANT CUNT!

  • GIRFUY | September 12, 2013 4:00 PM

    I saw the film this morning and at the beginning they are, in fact, making their way from England to Scotland. So, a lot of it is English countryside. They do eventually make it to Scotland, but not in the "opening portion" the review talks of.

    And even if you had been correct, there's no need to be so vulgar.

  • curious | September 10, 2013 8:37 PM

    Funnily enough, you ignoramus, many parts of the Scottish countryside resemble the English countryside.

  • what? | September 9, 2013 4:57 PMReply

    This review is so badly written. It completely misses the point of the film. I can't wait until the masses get to see it.

  • susan harr | February 18, 2014 7:58 PM

    Thank you for your comment; I too disliked this review, and as to 'no emotion', they had to be joking! I was more moved by this film, esp. the subtly drawn out ending, than by "Twelve Years a Slave" which has been so feted at the Baftas. And why does nobody mention Jeremy Irvine, whose performance as the younger man was outstanding?

  • Ian | September 16, 2013 9:51 AM

    That's not true. Australia and The Others both grossed 200+ million and she was the top billed star.

    Masses avoid indy/weird stuff and Kidman does loads of that.

  • Not happening | September 9, 2013 5:29 PM

    The masses avoid Kidman films like the plague.

  • 4sdcse2s04f4186c2sd1csdrf | September 9, 2013 2:16 PMReply

    wait. 'the railway man' is a "a harrowing story of survival and courage in the face of unspeakable brutality" that has "very little in way of edge"?

    the playlist sucks for oxygen

  • Hardly surprising | September 9, 2013 2:43 AMReply

    "there's very little in way of edge or even, surprisingly, emotion" is because Kidman's frozen face cannot convey emotion and she cannot act.

  • i | September 16, 2013 9:51 AM

    Stop commenting with different names, dickhead.

  • Amy | September 8, 2013 4:09 PMReply

    And what is there is no conflict? does every marriage go through the same narrative? The story was told as is. Going by the reaction for the film on Twitter, the film did what needed to be done considering the emotional state of those who saw it. There ARE women like Patti Lomax who understand that you must sometimes accept what or who your mate is and HELP them with whatever baggage that they have rather than "creating conflict" between them because people with little imagination think "conflict" is what gives a story drama.

  • susan harr | February 18, 2014 8:01 PM

    Absolutely right on, Amy. This critic is really dumb: as you say, Patti was a remarkable woman who staunchly suppported her husband, and in any case to introduce another thread of marital conflict would have taken away from the central theme, which was powerful enough in its own right.

  • Ian | September 8, 2013 2:46 PMReply

    Such a poorly written review.

  • Tania | September 8, 2013 12:22 PMReply

    Nicole Kidman is wonderful in the film

  • little my | September 8, 2013 12:19 PMReply

    Can't wait for this looks to be cathartic, Nicole and Colin look cute together.

  • Josh | September 8, 2013 9:40 AMReply

    I hope its more accurate than Bridge on the River Kwai.

  • Lizzie | September 8, 2013 5:15 PM

    Well Eric Lomax didn't like Bridge on the River Kwai either If the film is made from Mr Lomax's book then it should be accurate. After all he went through all the trauma of being a prisoner of the Japanese during the war. I used to know a man who was a prisoner of the Japanese (not on the railway), and he used to tell of some harrowing things that happened.

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