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Review: 'The Railway Man' is a literal-minded look at trauma

In "The Railway Man," Colin Firth plays a WWII vet suffering from massive trauma acquired from his days as a beaten POW.

Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman comfort eachother in "The Railway Man." Credit: The Weinstein Company Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman comfort eachother in "The Railway Man."
Credit: The Weinstein Company

'The Railway Man'
Director: Jonathan Teplitsky
Stars: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

There might be a cinematically satisfying way to tell the story of Eric Lomax, a former British officer traumatized by his experiences as a POW during WWII. It would require something “artier” — probably a lot of interplay with flashbacks triggered by minor present day events. Nicolas Roeg in the 1970s would have turned it into a trippy study of memory; Steven Soderbergh, were he not retired, would have made something of it. Instead, we get Jonathan Teplitsky’s “The Railway Man,” which tells it as tepidly and as literal-mindedly as it can muster, revealing the material as little more than a “60 Minutes” special interest story.

In truth, it was originally a prize-winning memoir, which is the tale’s ideal medium. Already turned into a 1995 TV movie — another not bad fit for it — the story starts with Lomax years after the war, when he’s played by Colin Firth in full-on Colin Firth charming-reticent mode. He woos Patti (Nicole Kidman), a nice woman he meets on a train — just like in the 1944 British almost-romance “Brief Encounter,” which he charmingly brings up. Once they’re wed, she realizes that his traditional English stiff upper lip mien is actually obscuring massive trauma from his time in WWII.

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At this point we launch into a massive flashback to younger Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) and his experiences as a prisoner, particularly when he’s forced to work on the Thai-Burma Railway north of Malaysia. The film has been divided into three sections, with the third detailing Firth’s Lomax trip to Japan to find one of his captors (Hiroyuki Sanada), an encounter that could turn out to be revenge.

Screenwriters Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson are no stranger to this kind of screenwriting; their script for “Hilary and Jackie” too spent entire acts on different ages and characters. But each section is flat — either too reserved or too manipulative. The second part ODs on beatings while the third part invents a tension that never happened, because the real story isn't too exciting. It's still results in few fireworks; it still feels generic.

The game plan seems to be that actors will give personality to the material. They try: Firth is first more vulnerable than he’s ever been, then more menacing than he’s ever been. As his former victimizer and potential future victim, Sanada oozes bottomless guilt. But those things are hail marys introduced too late into a production with a weak foundation. They're trinkets supposed to distract you from a story that was never whipped into an adequate shape.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
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