MOVIE REVIEW: The Railway Man
"THE RAILWAY MAN"-- 4 STARS
In my opinion, very few actors have established themselves with their performance history to the point that their presence alone is an automatic sign of elevated quality towards an entire film. Call it "street cred" on a casual level or "artistic integrity" on a professional level, but few actors and actresses are near-guarantees for solid and award-worthy performances every time they take on a role. By my account, Academy Award winner Colin Firth has elevated to become one of those rare performers. He's outstanding in everything he takes on, comedy or drama, and the films he chooses become better with him being there. He can make a bad movie tolerable and a good movie great. Go ahead and rank him as the second best British actor working today, right behind his fellow "Brit Pack" member and the only three-time Oscar winner for Best Actor, Daniel Day-Lewis.
"The Railway Man" is the latest effort from the prolific Colin Firth at inhabiting a fascinating character. Based on the Eric Lomax's autobiography of the same name, Firth plays a British World War II veteran from the Pacific theater that we meet years later in the early 1980's. He's an introverted man and train enthusiast hiding behind a mustache and minor obsessive character quirks. On a long train ride across England, he meets and shares great conversation with a strikingly interesting and beautiful woman named Patti Wallace, played by fellow Academy Award winner Nicole Kidman. She sees past his guarded exterior towards his proper goodness and they are quickly married.
Not long after they are married, Patti begins to witness the nightmares and scarring depression that deeply resides within Eric. Something unbearable from his past haunts him and Eric refuses to talk about it. Seeking counsel with Finlay (the reliable Stellan Skarsgard), one of Eric's fellow war veterans and best friend, Patti begins to learn of unspoken horrors Eric, Finlay, and other men shared during the Great War.
Through extended flashback, we meet the younger Eric ("War Horse" star Jeremy Irvine) and Finlay (promising newcomer Sam Reid) serving in radio communications outside of Singapore. When they are captured by the Japanese, the men are forced to work in a POW camp on the arduous construction of Thai-Burma Railway in Malaysia. In the prison camp, Eric is singled out as a troublemaker and accused liar by the Japanese officer Nagase (Tanroh Ishida) and is frequently punished. We slowly learn just how far and damaging that so-called punishment was.
The revelation that unites the past and the present of this movie and sets new events in motion is when the older Finlay discovers that Nagase (now played by Japanese great Hiroyuki Sanada) is still alive and running a historical museum at the former prison camp and passes that information onto Eric. Retribution and revenge stir within Eric to the point that he becomes determined to travel to Malaysia and confront Nagase, even at the risk of his marriage and his sanity.
With that journey brewing, "The Railway Man" is a flashback drama that grows and blossoms with powerful intrigue. The more you learn of Eric's time as a POW, the more the film elevates the potential clash of what might happen if the tables were turned and the shoe was on the other foot, so to speak. The buildup, though a little buffed up from the real true story being told, works as a dramatized film outlining a side of World War II we have rarely seen or heard told. There is plenty to be inspired and fascinated by within the film.
Up-and-comer Jeremy Irvine asserts himself extremely well at playing the younger Eric. His role has equal psychological demand and greater physical demand than his older counterparts. Without that young man succeeding in that aspect of the role and storytelling, the flashbacks would be more hollow than poignant and sink the story when Colin Firth leaves the screen. Irvine rightfully earns his share of the credit to elevating this film.
Colin Firth is, of course, outstanding. Much like in his excellent performances in "The King's Speech" and "A Single Man," he can internally fill a seemingly placid exterior with an enormous amount of underlying emotion, tension, and raw power. He seems to specialize in characters that have more going on that just what you see on the outside. Such ability is a true talent few of his peers can match. Eric Lomax is a complicated individual and what kind of man he turns out to be hangs in the balance of this film thanks to Firth's exemplary work.
In a mild surprise, the person that can match that ability of Firth's in "The Railway Man" is Nicole Kidman. This is, arguably, as other critics have noted, the "oldest" role she has ever played to date, embracing her middle-aged position in life. She's not trying to be a glamorous star here as Patti Lomax. She's a supportive wife with a strength all her own to balance the madness opposite to her. For as much as Patti suits Eric and weathers that storm, Kidman is an powerful complement to Firth as a performer. She impressively reminds us on her talent outside of the spotlight.
"The Railway Man" premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last fall and is finally making it into limited release in American theaters this April and May. It is just the fourth feature from promising Australian director Jonathan Teplitzkty, a BAFTA-winning documentarian. This film will be hard to find in theaters, but I highly recommend it when it crosses your path via On-Demand, Redbox, or otherwise.
LESSON #1: THE PSYCHOLOGICAL TRAUMAS EXPERIENCED BY PRISONERS OF WAR-- I'm keeping this general as to not give away specifics of the personal iteration of post-traumatic stress disorder that occurs with Eric Lomax. It is unique and worth seeing develop within "The Railway Man." Nevertheless, the elements of personal surrender, lost hope, forced imprisonment, brutal punishments, and grueling servitude all undoubtedly change and scare a man during this wartime practice. There is no way such experiences wouldn't change someone. Call this lesson automatic.
LESSON #2: THE SPOUSAL SIDE OF PSYCHOLOGICAL TRAUMA-- Kidman's point of view and role as Patti Lomax is prominently in play as well. The disconnect, anguish, and difficulty of acceptance and understanding of past trauma is something that is carried by the spouses of trauma victims with equal weight. Through no fault of their own at times, the relationship of marriage is stressed and challenged when one spouse or the other has their personal demons and fractures. One must take a person's good and bad qualities in matrimony. That said, it takes a special partner to stand by those with their troubles.
LESSON #3: WHEN IS REVENGE DESERVED AND WHEN IS FORGIVENESS DESERVED-- The punishment and torture young Eric Lomax experienced is inhumane, cruel, and unjustifiable. For most who witness this or experience it, the atrocities go beyond even the strongest belief of "turn the other cheek" or acceptance of the soldier's exemption of "just following orders." There is a fascinating and powerful struggle in this story of what is deserved more, revenge or forgiveness, and how one can be healed by either action.