Oscar winner Colin Firth (“The King’s Speech”) turns in another beautiful performance in “The Railway Man,” based on the real-life autobiography by Eric Lomax.
Firth plays Eric, a nebbish man who meets former nurse Patti (Nicole Kidman) on a train in Scotland. Nervous, he rattles on about the scenery as it whizzes by. He knows the area well since he rides the train a lot. He’s quick to point out, though, that he’s not a train spotter, but a “railway enthusiast.”
Nevertheless, Patti is drawn to him. Rather quickly, Eric and Patti fall in love and get married. Patti doesn’t even get through the honeymoon before finding out that Eric is deeply disturbed. He won’t talk about it and becomes withdrawn. At a loss, she confides in Eric’s friend, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard), who recounts Eric’s story. And it’s not a pleasant one.
We learn in flashbacks that Eric and Finlay both served in the army in World War II. We see a young Eric (Jeremy Irvine, “War Horse”) and young Finlay (Sam Reid) as they are captured in Singapore and forced to work on the Burma railroad (later known as the Death Railroad).
We also learn of – and witness – the horrible torture that Eric endured that understandably will haunt him forever.
Back in present day, Finlay learns that Eric’s worst tormentor is still alive. He tells Eric, who takes it upon himself to visit the man. Will he seek revenge? Or closure?
There is some stodgy pacing during the film’s first act, but it picks up momentum and urgency when we get to the flashbacks, which are riveting. The torture scenes are admittedly hard to watch, but necessary.
Performances are top-notch, even if Kidman has little to do other than look concerned. But she adds warmth and depth. Firth, meanwhile, goes all in. We see the pain he’s struggling to stifle.
Overall, “The Railway Man” is uneven. Its dual timelines are jarring, and there are radical differences in tone. But thanks to its performances, the film has a resonant and touching emotional conclusion.