Director: Jonathan Teplitzky; Writers: Frank Cottrell Boyce, Andy Paterson (screenplay), Eric Lomax (autobiography); Starring: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgård, Hiroyuki Sanada, Jeremy Irvine, Tanroh Ishida; Running time: 116 minutes; Certification: 15
Feeling as though I had been with it from the beginning, and as such it was somehow partly mine, it was with an entirely undue sense of pride that I walked into The Railway Man. The reason dates back to one day a couple of years ago, as I was walking home from college, when I noticed a clump of production trailers loitering in the corner of the parking lot. Intrigued, I crept towards them trying to figure out what was going, before later discovering that the production was The Railway Man, a Colin Firth/Nicole Kidman/Stellan Skarsgård-starring true story of a man – Eric Lomax – plagued by the horrors of war. Despite having positively nothing to do with the film, I have, since that day, felt like I’ve been with it in spirit, and as such it was with much anticipation that I settled down before the opening frame rolled. When it did, I quickly revoked my self-imposed spiritual credit.
Colin Firth has done much in recent years to impress us – not least his astonishing performance as stuttering King George VI in The King’s Speech – but even he, with all his charisma and charm, nor the excellent Stellan Skarsgård, can fully bring to life this meandering, stumbling tale. There’s a touching true story at the centre of all this, and the backdrop of beautiful landscape torn apart by a harrowing war that to this day plagues both those who played a part (the number of which is sadly all but diminished) and those who have only heard the stories, yet somehow it’s all a very empty experience. Structurally it’s all over the place as we’re continuously disconnected from the drama with flashbacks to Lomax’s war in the Pacific, which intrude on the story of a war veteran living with his new wife while still struggling with the past rather than supplement it. Then there’s equally a problem with the flashback sequences themselves, as an odd lack of authenticity leaves us casually unmoved by events that should be having a much larger impact.
The script is at the centre of the problems plaguing The Railway Man. The premise it works around is an interesting one, but contrivances get in the way as it plays everything much too on the nose. Too much of the dialogue is spoon-fed and blatant, from the first fairytale meeting of Patricia (Kidman) and Eric on a train to Patricia and Finley’s (Skarsgård) first act set-up in the veteran’s home, as she asks him what happened to Eric during the war. Occasionally we’ll have a line that draws a smile to our lips, but more often than not it’s entirely too un-challenging and cog-like. The problem, too, with Kidman’s character is that she’s more of a plot device than an actual living, breathing person with a soul and motives. She’s only ever there to move the next thing along, to push Eric into his next part of the story. Of course that’s a part of storytelling; characters exist to move the drama along, but that’s all she does. There needs to be a balance between service to the plot and necessity to the story, but despite being a real person who did, in fact, play a role, she’s stuck lazily with the former.
The Railway Man fails in a number of areas, but I could have just about forgiven it if only there was some semblance of a beating heart. It’s a film that desperately wants to be something meaningful, but even with the privilege of an incredible true story for a template, it can’t escape from being an thoroughly hollow journey on extremely creaky tracks.