[This is a re-post of my The Railway Man review from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. The Railway Man opens today in limited release.]
War is an undeniable certainty. For as long as there is civilization, there will be war. With conflict comes tragedy, but it does not end when the war concludes; the effects a human being are long lasting and not easily forgotten. We’ve see countless aspects of war explored onscreen in various films, some focusing on the battles at hand, some zeroing in on the psychological experience, and some chronicling the lasting effects years after the actual conflict. The Railway Man tries to have it both ways by telling two stories: one of atrocities during World War II and one of the after effects on man’s psyche nearly half a decade later. By splitting its focus in two, though, the film fails to wholly capture either story, resulting in a disappointing feature all together. Hit the jump for my full review.
Based on a true story, The Railway Man opens in 1980 England as Colin Firth plays Eric Lomax, a former British officer and Prisoner of War who was interred by the Japanese in Singapore. When we first meet up with the adult Eric, we see that he is a self-described railway enthusiast. He has the various routes and tracks memorized, and spends his days riding various trains across England. During one of his outings, he runs into a woman named Patricia (Nicole Kidman). The two strike up a rapport and after a very brief sequence chronicling their courtship, they are quickly married. On their wedding day, however, Patricia returns to their bedroom to find Eric on the floor, screaming uncontrollably as he is haunted by memories of his imprisonment.
Eric refuses to discuss his time in the POW camp, so Patricia approaches his friend and fellow POW Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard), who reluctantly begins to tell her their story. The film then flashes back to the war, with Jeremy Irvine playing the young Eric. We follow Eric’s story from the beginning of his unit’s surrender up through their captivity and eventual release. Instead of layering brief flashbacks throughout the entire film, though, director Jonathan Teplitzky decides to spend nearly the entire second act in the 1940s, and Firth is relegated to a supporting player in his own film.
The performances in Railway Man are fine, but we spend so little time getting to know the adult Eric and Patricia that it’s tough to connect to their relationship. Their courtship and marriage happens within the span of 5 or 10 minutes, and it’s up to Firth and Kidman to sell the pairing. They do what they can, but without ample time it becomes difficult to invest in the relationship. As such, when Eric starts withdrawing from his marriage to Patricia’s dismay, the audience’s sympathy hasn’t been earned and we’re left to simply observe the rift between them.
Irvine turns in very strong work as the young Eric, and he does an impeccable job of matching Firth’s accent. It’s a tall order to take over for the lead actor for a third of the film, but Irvine’s performance is strong enough to hold our attention. Unfortunately Teplitzky’s focus pulls out of the WWII scenes just as we’ve become invested in Irvine’s character, and we’re now trying to bridge connection to Firth.
In splitting the pic up into two halves of one story, The Railway Man never coalesces as a complete film. The reconciliation between the two portions never quite comes together, so when Firth sets out to find his captor, we again have no investment in what happens. Kidman does what she can with Patricia, but her character only serves as a sounding board for Finley to deliver exposition so that can set up the flashbacks. She spends the rest of the time tiptoeing around the issue with Eric so as not to further upset him. Firth is indeed good in the film and he does a nice job of showing the long-lasting effects of PTSD, but we spend so little time getting to know him that an emotional connection never materializes.
The horrors of war are indeed scars that never completely heal, and in trying to capture both the atrocities themselves and the lingering effects long after, Teplitzky short changes both. The Railway Man is engaging to a point, but when the film’s schizophrenic focus fails to create an attachment to the lead character, the climax and conclusion mostly fall flat, leaving the audience interested but not invested. When chronicling something as difficult and deep as the horrors of war, observation just simply isn’t enough.