There are plenty of war films as well as its many sub-genres out there, but out of all of them I would pick the Prisoner of War film as the most difficult to make, largely because what can be said about the atrocities that prisoners experienced has already been skilfully done, leaving little room to add anything new. For me, not just the very best Prisoner of War film, but one of the finest war films ever made, is Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter.
Jonathan Teplitzky’s adaptation of the memoirs of Japanese prisoner of war, Eric Lomax, gives us something different in that Lomax forgave his tormentor, Takashi Nagase, who, while Nagase did not physically torture Lomax, he did something arguably worse: he stood by and did nothing.
The Railway Man ticks all the boxes for awards glory, critical and commercial success, and ending up in a large number of DVD collections. While the film is a decent enough way to spend two hours, it does feel like a waste. Instead of being a good film, this could have been a highlight in Firth and Teplitzky’s careers.
The problem lies first and foremost with Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Andy Paterson’s script, which jumps wildly between Lomax in the eighties (Colin Firth) and his time in the prisoner of war camp (played by Jeremy Irvine), rushing at breakneck speed towards the credits. For a film that centres on purgatory and redemption, The Railway Man spends little time exploring these themes.
Considering the acting talent involved, no one is given all that much to work with. Firth fares best, doing a convincing job portraying a man who is plagued by traumas of the past, but at no point is he stretched. The film would have been far more interesting if we were shown more of Lomax’s day-to-day life as he struggles with his demons, distancing himself from his wife, their marriage at breaking point. Instead, apart from a powerful moment when Lomax wakes from one of his nightmares, traumatised, and a handful of scenes where Lomax shuts himself away, we never get a full understanding of how Lomax’s experiences as a prisoner affected him. As Nicole Kidman explains, whenever she asks her husband about his experiences in Japan, “He changes the subject,” which more or less sums up The Railway Man and how it treats its protagonist: it changes subject, hurriedly moves on from one scene to the next.
Jeremy Irvine is first-rate as the younger Lomax, mimicking Firth’s diction and mannerisms. Sadly, Irvine gets lumbered with a clichéd role as the shy, frightened soldier who stands up to his captors; he is not given the chance to do anything else. The only reason we sympathise with the young Lomax is because we witness the terrible ways he is tortured. It feels like a cheap trick to side with a character just because we see them get beaten black and blue.
Hiroyuki Sanada holds your attention during what little time he has onscreen. As an older Nagase, he also has his scars, spending his life trying to atone for the past. Despite Firth appearing virtually throughout the film, it is Sanada’s scenes that pack the biggest emotional punch. While The Railway Man has its fair share of problems, it is impossible not to be moved in the film’s climactic scene.
While the trailer for The Railway Man had the acting credits as Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, Kidman has very little to do in the film except look concerned for her husband; there are long stretches in the film where she does not even appear. While Kidman’s role is solely as a narrative device – Lomax still has something to live for – Patricia could have been far more fleshed out. She is a devoted wife, struggling to cope as her husband becomes more and more introverted, none of which is shown in any great detail. Scarcely any screen time is invested in Patricia which, when you have an actress as peerless as Kidman, is a real waste.
Stellan Skarsgård as the older Finlay is the most short-changed, acting-wise. Like Patricia, he is another narrative device. Finlay would rather bury his trauma, live his life in silence, than try and deal with it. He is a living, breathing ghost, with no trace of a life, and is what Lomax will become if he does not confront his demons. Yet the older Finlay appears on screen for all of five minutes, his dialogue largely exposition or pushing the narrative along. An actor as consistently outstanding as Skarsgård deserves better than this (see Marius Holst’s King of Devil’s Island for one of Skarsgård’s stand-out performances), having been given a role he can scarcely do anything with.
Considering this is a film largely set in Japan and tells the story of a man obsessed with the world’s most scenic railways, the cinematography and editing is nothing special. The visuals in the film tell the story, no more, no less. Personally, I can forgive a film that visually does nothing new if a director has paid more attention to the actors and storytelling, but Teplitzky does none of this. The Railway Man is in too much of a rush, never taking the time to explain anything or get inside the heads of its characters.
Despite all of this, The Railway Man is a decent watch, thanks largely to Firth and Sanada. The film hurries towards Lomax confronting Nagase and these scenes are, for the most part, well handled. There is real tension as Lomax interrogates Nagase, followed by moments that are genuinely moving, Lomax realising that Nagase is not the same man who mistreated him all those years ago. The script does not explore these characters, how they have both suffered, as much as it should, but Firth and Sanada make their scenes together immensely powerful. The last twenty minutes of The Railway Man feels like a different film entirely; it is gentle, thoughtful, and takes its time. When dealing with a story as moving and profound as Lomax’s, this is how Teplitzky should have structured his film, but instead he is in a mad rush, covering as much ground as he can, giving few of the film’s scenes the depth they deserve.
The Railway Man is a passable war film, when, considering the source material and the talent on board, it should have been one of the greatest.
3 out of 5