Offering closure to a less-told chapter of World War II history, “The Railway Man” retraces the tracks of an exceptional man’s life, as former British soldier Eric Lomax confronts the Japanese officer who tortured him as a prisoner of war nearly four decades earlier. This overly stodgy true story brought audiences first to tears and later to their feet for a rousing standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival with its placid, postcard-worthy view of how men of a certain generation cope with deep emotional scars, tenderly acted by Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, as Lomax and the woman who inspired his healing. Too delicate to entice the masses, “The Railway Man” will likely give a smaller distrib a dark horse in the awards race.
There’s something decidedly old-fashioned — and also dull as ditchwater — about Jonathan Teplitzky’s retelling of events: The contemporary sequences, set in 1980, unfold like scenes in a 1940s studio picture as Lomax (played by Colin Firth) meets the unsuspecting Patti (Kidman) in a train compartment. The characters even make reference to David Lean’s “Brief Encounter,” which seems to be running through Lomax’s mind when he later intercepts the elegant stranger at Edinburgh’s Waverly Station.
Lomax is a self-professed “railway enthusiast,” you see. He worked as a signals engineer in the service and never lost his love of trains, despite being forced to build Thailand’s notorious “Death Railway” after being taken prisoner in Singapore, circa 1942. Patti can sense that there’s something not quite right about Lomax when they meet — a certain frazzled professorial quality that masks just how much trauma he’s still coping with as a result of his captivity. It’s not until after the couple is married that she realizes how the nightmares still haunt him, while fantasies of revenge continue to dominate his waking thoughts.
Although Lomax belongs to a support group of sorts back home in Berwick-upon-Tweed, he and a dozen other survivors keep mum about their experience (this code of silence makes the fact that Lomax agreed to tell his story at all a rare thing among former Pacific-theater POWs). Concerned, Patti convinces one of their lot, Lomax’s best friend, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard), to explain what her husband refuses to discuss, which invites a long flashback in which we learn of the arduous conditions Lomax (played by “War Horse’s” Jeremy Irvine as a young man) and his fellow soldiers faced in the Japanese internment camps. Caught with a contraband radio, Lomax had it worst of all, enduring incredible torture as the Japanese tried to force a confession.
This treatment, which included being beaten with bamboo and waterboarding, would be enough to break anyone’s spirit, and sure enough, Lomax was never the same again — which explains why both he and Finlay are so incensed when the Japanese translator who participated in their torture resurfaces unpunished, finding work as a tour guide at the country’s Kempeitai War Museum in the ’80s. Upsetting as it sounds, everything unfolds entirely according to the parameters of good taste, as Terplitzky gradually reveals the degree of cruelty Lomax faced in captivity, shooting everything in polite period re-creations.
During the first half of the film, Firth has it relatively easy, as Patti accepts Lomax’s suffering vicariously and Irvine’s younger version of the character acts out the full passion play of abuse: beaten, emaciated and still too proud to tell them anything but the truth. However, the equation balances in the end, as the now-elderly Lomax confronts Nagase Takashi (Hiroyuki Sanada, who looks nothing like younger actor Tanroh Ishida) and subjects him to a fraction of the same treatment. How often have we seen this story from the Nazi side of things, where liberated Jews get the upper hand on their tormentors? Still, though the Death Railway horrors were no less reprehensible, and Lomax would be well within his means to go all Simon Wiesenthal on Nagase, the film takes too respectful a tone for any genuine retribution to occur.
Instead, “The Railway Man” depicts a case of truth and reconciliation before such attitudes became the accepted way of coping with unspeakable human-rights violations. Lomax found heroism in compassion, and that attitude is what audiences are bound to connect with so deeply here, even if such an outcome proves almost anti-dramatic onscreen. As in “A Single Man,” Firth excels at tapping into deep pools of personal suffering, which comes across all the more poignant when he takes the high road.
The very last minute of the film is far and away the most effective, suggesting that perhaps the unexpected consequences of Lomax and Nagase’s reunion (captured in the documentary “Enemy, My Friend”) form a richer story than the incidents leading up to it (previously dramatized for television in “Everyman” episode “Prisoners in Time,” starring John Hurt). Regardless, it’s astonishing that Lomax was able to let go of his hatred and still find place in his heart for all things railroad-related, which Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson’s script attributes to Patti’s presence in his life.
The secret weapon here is Australian composer David Hirschfelder, who previously collaborated with Teplitzky on “Better Than Sex” and before that on such indelible Oz scores as “Strictly Ballroom” and “Shine,” whose timeless theme conveys all of the hurt and forgiveness which the film otherwise underplays onscreen. Tech credits are typically topnotch, encompassing elaborate location work and a generally low-key look for both periods (the ’40s and the ’80s) that’s totally different from the feel of “Burning Man,” despite several department heads in common.