‘The Railway Man’ displays moments of brilliance

2 1/2 out of 4 stars

The World War II drama holds much respect, as film was becoming a solid art medium not long before the war erupted. The Railway Man, a modern take on a classic WWII picture, takes cues from it’s predecessors and makes good use of cinematography and direction. If it occasionally trips up in its music and narrative structure, the film ultimately leaves a lasting impression as a story of love and forgiveness.

Based on his book, the story follows Eric Lomax (Colin Firth), a middle aged British man who marries the kind Patricia Wallace (Nicole Kidman). Early in their marriage, Patricia begins to notice strange, occasionally violent behavior from Eric. She approaches Eric’s best friend Finlay (Stellan Skarsgaård) and learns that as a young man (played by Jeremy Irvine), Eric was a prisoner of war to the Japanese, even eventually suffering torture at their hands.

Finlay reveals to Eric that a man who served as a translator to the Japanese in the POW camp (Hiroyuki Sanada as the older, Tanroh Ishida as the younger) is still alive. Eric seeks out the man to finally find closure and move on.

the-railway-manFirth gives an electric performance, maintaining quiet command over every scene while never stepping outside of his allotted dramatic boundaries. His carefully constructed character arc never feels contrived, even with the vast emotional extremes he conveys.

Kidman matches Firth’s efforts and creates a character with which the audience can sympathize. Unfortunately Firth and Kidman’s scenes together do occasionally feel a bit underplayed and shroud their chemistry. And Sanada’s earnestness feels a bit questionable at times, though his fear hits just the right notes. The casting of Irvine feels truly inspired, as the young actor lives and breathes Firth in every way.

Structurally, this story generally works for a film treatment. The audience never doubts that the flashbacks come from Eric’s memory, although it would have been nice to continue to reveal triggers for each memory, a trick used in the first act quite effectively in a time crossover scene.

Other than occasionally melodramatic dialogue, the screenplay from Frank Cottrell Boyce (Hilary and Jackie) and Andy Paterson (Girl with a Pearl Earring) primarily suffers from a lopsided narrative. Eric’s return to the POW camp takes up a huge chunk of the movie, an odd choice considering this scene has the makings for a dramatic climax. The nonfiction nature of the story seems to have hindered the writers, as they have set the climax much later in a moment that feels low-key, unexpected, and ultimately unsatisfying.

Director Jonathan Teplitzky (Burning Man) has a strong eye for period and mood. The mannered direction he has taken his actors in feels well suited for their characters. And the design combinations he has employed make the film gloomy and haunted, not to mention strikingly vintage. His approach does make the narrative feel like it has come from the eyes of Patricia oddly, and this makes Eric’s return to the camp awkward.

Teplitzky’s strongest moments lie in the flashbacks. His approach to Eric’s torture never feels gratuitous, yet still is near unbearable to watch (in the best way). A scene where young Eric returns home after the war to his mother will absolutely take your breath away. The flashbacks could maybe have used a bit more of a visual cue for the audience to recognize why the camp was so horrible, as we are forced to go off of the words and reactions of the characters alone. But overall, Teplitzky displays a sure hand at the helm.

The Railway Man - one courageous journey. (Screeshot)
The Railway Man – one courageous journey. (Screeshot)

The Railway Man’s biggest mistake is its score. David Hirschfelder (The Truman Show and Elizabeth) clearly is attempting to channel period film with his moment-to-moment, mood based score. While well-orchestrated and beautiful in darker scenes, the music breaks the cardinal rule and tells the audience exactly what they are supposed to think when they are supposed to think it.

This overwrought attention to detail not only leaves little control in the audience’s hands, but it makes the film feel like a comedy from the outset. A little more loosening of the reins would have helped immensely.

The production values otherwise feel quite strong. In particular, cinematographer Garry Phillips (Candy and Burning Man) creates striking portraits with a cool filter, achieving a vintage visual that feels simultaneously modern thanks to some well-composed uses of perspective. His brighter shots in the flashbacks seem to be an attempt to capture location and climate, though it feels a bit off in comparison to the moodier flash forwards.

Be thankful for this film, as it tells a beautiful story of what it is to be human and accept our past traumas in order to move forward. It honors Eric Lomax and many others like him. The film may be a tad rough around the edges where story and production are concerned, but a dynamic central performance and keen direction help create a solid telling of a courageous man’s life.