Joining the avalanche of “based on a true story” films that have been hitting our screens lately, The Railway Man is a World War II movie with a difference: you don’t ever actually see any battles nor is it a love story as such. In fact, the love story that the film does contain is misleading, although that doesn’t diminish the performance of Nicole Kidman as the inquisitive, loving wife. Although the first third of the film largely concentrates on Lomax (Colin Firth) meeting Patti on a train he wasn’t planning to be on, then tracking her down by figuring out which train she would have needed to take to get to where her journey was continuing (he really loves trains and train schedules), their first date and the wedding, it quickly transpires that it is essentially just a plot device to drive the actual story.
Told from a 1980 framework, the movie shows both the experiences of a young Lieutenant Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) surrendering with his troop and being tortured as a slave in 1942 and the traumatic effects this experience has had on his life in the ‘present day’. The opening scene has us find an old Lomax (Colin Firth) on the floor, reciting a poem that turns into a touchstone over the course of the film as he recites it at various moments, sometimes more, sometimes less violent, but always emotionally tense.
As his wife pushes Lomax’s best friend Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård) into telling her what happened in 1942 – Lomax was caught using a radio and brutally tortured for weeks – Finlay eventually discovers that Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada), the man responsible for the torture, is still alive and working as a guide on the old site now turned into a museum. Through dramatic action, Finlay convinces Lomax to travel to Burma and confront his past. What he finds there and how it changes both him and Nagase is so crushingly human you’ll wish more stories were like this.
Colin Firth may have won an Academy Award for his portrayal as King George VI in The King’s Speeech, but it is here, in The Railway Man as a soldier, where he truly shines and delivers a tour de force performance that will leave you with goosebumps throughout and quite a while after the film. Stellan Skarsgård plays the torn friend so convincingly you could be forgiven for forgetting he ever was other characters, and Tanroh Ishida is a revelation with his cold-blooded, calm yet sadistic portrayal of the young Nagase.
It is a slow film, based largely on dialogue and carefully designed scenery and while violence is shown, it is never one that the audience would be unfamiliar with from other war movies or news broadcasts. This is easily one of the film’s greatest merits as it could have so easily descended into gore. In fact, The Railway Man is technically flawless. Jumping in between present day and past continuously, it’s only the shots of Lomax and his wife that are medium close-ups — and often they are wide shots, too, much like the rest of the film. The director, Jonathan Teplitzky, does give us some multi-layer shots but they are only used to symbolize the emotional and rational chaos that is going inside of old Lomax’s mind. The largest part of the film is shot in wide-angle, which creates two important effects: for one, the audience always stays slightly removed from the events that are being told — it functions as a sign of respect rather than an emotional distance — and secondly, it intensifies the feeling that Lomax is being crushed by his surroundings as they tower over him and he only occupies a small part of the screen. If you have ever watched BBC’s noir crime drama Luther, you’ll be more than familiar with that technique.
Ultimately, The Railway Man is an epic tale of forgiveness. It might look like a tale of revenge in the trailer, and it might even feel that way for much of the film, but it is not. In fact, even though he comes close to getting revenge, it is always clear that he does not actually want it and is really seeking something else.
The Railway Man is a masterpiece, and one of the greatest war movies you will ever see. Clocking in at 116 minutes, it’ll keep you at the edge of your seat the entire way through.