"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.
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.
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-]