TIFF 2013: ‘Railway Man,’ ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ dark bookends for a day

Los Angeles Times Film Critic

TORONTO -- As much as I love challenging films, I’m not sure I would recommend starting the day with “The Railway Man,” with Colin Firth as a British World War II vet suffering serious post traumatic stress disorder, and ending it at midnight with an emaciated Matthew McConaughey in “Dallas Buyers Club,” as a good ol’ Texas boy diagnosed in the first wave of the AIDS crisis.

But I did. It’s the blessing and the curse of film festivals packed with tons of intriguing movies and tight schedules. The payoff is, of course, in the films themselves.

The flashbacks in “Railway Man” are brutal, when a young Eric Lomax, played by Jeremy Irvine, and his cohorts are taken prisoner by the Japanese and sent to work on the “Death Railway” in Thailand. Based on a true story, the torture and beatings that Lomax suffered are excruciating to watch, and director Jonathan Teplitzky is unsparing in depicting them.


PHOTOS: Toronto Film Festival 2013 | Scene

Though watching Firth as Lomax in his later years trying to cope is almost as hard as he tries to not let the past destroy his new romance with Nicole Kidman’s Patricia, a woman he fittingly met on a train.

The screening started on a rainy day in Toronto and ran into a technical glitch that kept freezing the film, usually on Kidman’s face, which managed to look beautiful in every frame the camera caught. I didn’t even know that was possible.

Firth makes watching his characters deal with their troubles an easy thing to do in everything he does. He feels very old-school British in this, very stiff-upper-lip, a quiet hero.

McConaughey is not quiet, not very nice, but nevertheless a hero in “Dallas Buyers Club.” The screening was a late one but packed – I snagged the last seat in the last row of the theater’s top tier – and the Princess of Wales Theatre has about five, if I counted the flights of stairs right.

The actor, who lost about 50 pounds for the role -- so said director Jean-Marc Vallée in the introductions -- is beyond gaunt as Ron Woodruff. Disconcertingly so. The only thing at times that seems to keep him standing is the intensity the actor brings to his performance.

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Ron is a homophobic jerk who picks up the HIV virus during some unprotected sex with a girl whose arms are covered in tracks. The film follows his defiance of the death-in-30-days sentence given him by doctors. It leads him into the underworld of trafficking in experimental drugs. The AZT he got from Mexico helped buy him seven years.

There has been so much talk about McConaughey’s performance, it would seem Ron’s the one that will put him in this year’s Oscar race, though I have to say I like him in “Mud” a little more.

The film’s breakout in my book is Jared Leto. As Rayon, a beautifully fragile transgender who manages to become Ron’s best friend, Leto has never been more vulnerable. I hope he gets the notice he deserves.

More darkness on the book today. Soon I will go in search of a comedy.


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