The rich are different from the rest of us, but so are those who have gone to war. They have seen, felt and experienced what we have not.
The Railway Man examines the lasting effects of such experiences. And the film looks at these effects brutally and realistically, yet still retains its humanity.
The true story comes from the book by Eric Lomax, with screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson and directed by Jonathan Teplitzky. Played as a young man by Jeremy Irvine and as an older one by Colin Firth, Lomax spent time in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Thailand during World War II, an event he never forgot and one that reportedly shaded his life until his death in 2012.
Teplitzky takes Lomax’s story and weaves a telling mosaic over 30 years, building the psychological portrait formed by the camp’s extreme conditions. The story begins in 1980, Northern England, as the 60-ish Lomax, now a seemingly staid, stuffy sort, meets Patti (Nicole Kidman) on a train and, with little buildup, marries her.
Only then does she become aware of his acute mental suffering as seen through a series of breakdowns. He won’t talk to her — or anyone — about his problems, but she learns some of her husband’s history from his friend and one-time fellow camp mate Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard).
While showing Lomax’s current state, Teplitzky flips back to document the soldiers’ life in the camp. The director shows the tortures Lomax suffered but does not dwell needlessly on it.
Teplitzky makes his point and moves on, mainly to the film’s second half, when the older Lomax decides the only way to deal with his demons is to face them. This difficult decision results in a confrontational trip to the camp where the man who was once his chief prosecutor works as a tour guide.
Such face-offs rarely end well, either in the movies or real life, and this one rings a little hollow, even if it serves to bring some kind of cinematic closure to the tortured Lomax.
The Railway Man covers similar ground found in other war-camp movies. But every experience differs, as anyone who has ever been locked up in a camp can testify.
BOO ALLEN is an award-winning film critic who has contributed to the Denton Record-Chronicle for more than 20 years. He lives in Dallas.
Rated R, 117 minutes
Opens April 18