Colin Firth starts The Railway Man with a mustache, and the resemblance to Omar Sharif in David Lean’s war epic, Doctor Zhivago, is uncanny: same poetic heft, cleft chin, haunted eyes, and, yes, formidable mustache. It’s not the last time The Railway Man will recall – or explicitly call out – a David Lean picture. Early in the film, Firth’s Eric Lomax, a British World War II veteran, shares a train compartment in 1980 with a lovely stranger named Patti (Kidman). Swiftly under her spell, Eric mentions Lean’s Brief Encounter, that seminal British romancer about a short-lived affair that begins and ends at a train station. Patti’s too young to get the reference, but no matter: She falls for the gentle, erudite train enthusiast. What she soon learns is that that’s not the all of Eric. He’s also violently tormented by his time as a prisoner of war, forced to work on the construction of the Burma Railway (alternately known, with devastating accuracy, as the Death Railway). The building of that line resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 forced laborers, both civilian and POWs. In the WWII movie canon, the tragedy in Burma is a lesser-told story – excepting, of course, Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Based on the real-life Lomax’s memoir of the same name, The Railway Man runs on two tracks: the suspenseful dramatization of Eric’s PTSD and burgeoning romance with Patti in 1980, and flashbacks to his brutalizing experiences in the war, when he was repeatedly tortured by a Japanese officer named Nagase. (Eric is played as a young man by War Horse lead Jeremy Irvine, who radiates the same feeling of essential decency as Firth.) Screenwriters Andy Paterson and Frank Cottrell Boyce (who wrote many of Michael Winterbottom’s early films) adeptly shift the action back and forth between these two timelines, and the drama – exterior and interior – is engrossing in both tracks. Garry Phillips’ cinematography, too, does equally breath-catching landscape work with seaside Northumberland and the jungles of Southeast Asia.
Where the taut thread of the thing slackens is when the two tracks converge to put fiftysomething Eric in the same room with his former torturer (Sanada). The groundwork has been laid for a psychologically rich confrontation: How do you react when you’re staring a monster in the face? What do you do when that monster no longer looks the same? When offered the choice, how do you choose between revenge and forgiveness? That moment – that last question – is seemingly what the entire film has been building toward, but the filmmakers rush through it to get to a tidy, final-card coda. A whole movie could have been made out of that coda. The mind wanders to David Lean once again. The Railway Man is a different beast, of a different era – more committed to verisimilitude, less invested in seducing the viewer with its epic scope – and yet: Did a Lean picture ever end so incompletely?