Review: ‘The Railway Man’ deftly deals with war’s emotional trauma

Hiroyuki Sanada and Colin Firth in "The Railway Man."
(Jaap Buitendijk)

An alternately delicate and brutal retelling of the memoir by former World War II British Army officer Eric Lomax, “The Railway Man” is an impressively crafted, skillfully acted, highly absorbing journey into a dark corner of world history.

Colin Firth plays Lomax in 1980, more than 35 years after being tortured at a Japanese labor camp in Thailand. He learns that Takashi Nagase, the Japanese interpreter at the helm of that cruel, unforgettable punishment, is still alive. Lomax will eventually cross continents to confront his erstwhile captor and hopefully quell the post-traumatic stress disorder that has plagued the self-dubbed “railway enthusiast” for decades.

The film, as directed by Jonathan Teplitzky from a script by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson, takes anything but a direct approach toward that tense, final showdown between Lomax and Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada). Instead, it effectively toggles between the latter-day Lomax as he meets and marries the compassionate Patti (Nicole Kidman, as a former nurse who struggles to understand her tight-lipped new husband’s longtime trauma) and flashes back to a young Lomax’s (Jeremy Irvine) horrific time as a prisoner of war under the young Nagase’s (Tanroh Ishida) iron thumb following the 1942 fall of Singapore.

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The nightmare of the military conflict and the attendant torture, all set against the inhumane construction of the Burma-Siam Railway (a.k.a. the Death Railway), are grippingly re-created. Low key but equally compelling are the emotionally resonant scenes of the Lomaxes navigating their early days of marriage, times that swing from idyllic to fraught based on Eric’s often crippling PTSD.

A fine Stellan Skarsgård also appears in the pivotal role of Finlay, Lomax’s best friend and fellow labor camp detainee (played in flashback by a strong Sam Reid), who crosses a line to help Patti better understand her husband’s anguish.

Superb cinematography by Garry Phillips and a stirring score by David Hirschfelder add much to this powerful, evocative film, which is capped by a cathartic coda that might have felt a tad too “cinematic” had the events not actually taken place.



“The Railway Man”

MPAA rating: R for disturbing violence

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

Playing: ArcLight Hollywood and the Landmark, West Los Angeles