The Railway Man tells the story of self-confessed ‘railway enthusiast’ Eric Lomax whose passion for railways and talent as an engineer gets him noticed during the occupation of Thailand in the Second World War. After the British surrender of Singapore, Lomax and his fellow soldiers are taken to Thailand and forced to work on the building of the Burmese railways, at which point Lomax is captured and tortured by the Japanese army. The film picks up in 1980, where Lomax is struggling to reconcile himself with his experiences of the war and it is through flashback sequences that we slowly piece together the story.
It is left to Nicole Kidman as the suffering wife to coax the truth of the past out of Lomax’s friend Finlay, (Stellan Skarsgard) despite being told that she ‘cannot understand’ what they went through. Kidman’s performance is good and delicately played, in a role that could have been somewhat hammed up. Similarly, the silently suffering seems to be a niche Colin Firth is carving out for himself and consistently excels while at it. This film is no different and Firth is excellent as the man struggling to carry on with normal life whilst never being able to let go of the past.
But it is when Jeremy Irvine takes centre stage during the flashback sequences and we move away from the dreary landscapes and troubled characters of the 1980s that the film picks up. Irvine shines in this movie, true he is not playing the Lomax deadened by years of traumatic memories, but Irvine’s performance as the young Eric is moving and shows an uncanny likeness to Colin Firth. It is far easier to become attached to this young Eric who is still brave and optimistic and this is only increased by Irvine’s touching performance.
For a story penned as a tale of revenge, there is not much revenge involved; this is a tale of forgiveness. The Railway Man is not a war film but a film about war, the older Lomax takes precedence over the young one and this film is a story of veterans. The sequences of war are shown only in relation to the impact they have had on these men as they sit silently brooding at their club. It is a solid but perhaps too measured account of trauma, the split between past and present, and between Lomax and Finlay as narrators, means that no event and no person packs the punch needed to be emotionally rousing.
The Railway Man is a sturdy tribute to Eric Lomax and unremittingly grim in its exploration of the scars left by war and torture. But for one reason or another the film fails to leave any mark of its own.