From Western entertainment, there is an odd lack of WWII films that take place in the Pacific. The only ones I can think of off the top of my head are The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Thin Red Line, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, Tora! Tora! Tora! and The Pacific (which is a TV series, but still). Meanwhile, I could go on and on listing WWII films that take place in Europe. It’s strange because it seems to me that there are just as many interesting stories you could tell about the events in the Pacific as there are in Europe. Perhaps there’s still a more raw emotional attachment that Americans have, which might make any film dealing with our conflict with Japan a tad awkward. I’m not sure, but I would still like to see more stories from this region. In comes The Railway Man, the British/Australian production directed by Jonathan Teplitzky and written by Andy Paterson and Frank Cottrell Boyce.
Based on the autobiographical book of the same name by Eric Lomax, the film follows Eric (Colin Firth, and Jeremy Irvine during the flashbacks) who meets, falls in love with and marries Patti (Nicole Kidman). Over time, Patti notices Eric becoming more and more detached, so she sets out to discover what Eric is hiding. With the help of Eric’s friend, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård), she finds out about Eric’s past as a British Army officer in a Japanese controlled labor camp and forced to take part in the construction of the Thai-Burma Railway, which we see through flashbacks.
The Railway Man could have easily fallen flat if it doesn’t do anything interesting when compared to The Bridge on the River Kwai (which deals with a similar subject matter), but despite its faults, it manages to stand on its own as a compelling human drama that deals with war, trauma and forgiveness. But we might as well get its issues out of the way. The first 10-15 minutes of the film shows Eric and Patti meeting on a train, getting into a relationship and then getting married. It felt very rushed and unnecessary. I thought it would have been simpler if they were already married to begin with, and have Eric being slowly incapable of properly bottling his emotions. And since Patti essentially acts as the audience surrogate for just over the first half of the film, her character on paper comes off a bit cold when we are supposed to identify with her situation the most. There isn’t a lot to her character, but Nicole Kidman does bring a lot of humanity to the role, though she does fall to the background once Colin Firth goes front and center in the second half of the film. Another problem is the pacing of the film, which is overall really slow, but certain segments go on either too slow or too fast. Also adding to that is the screenplay meandering about during some parts in the first half of the film. Also, as good as Stellan Skarsgård was in the film, he seemed a bit miscast, his thick accent makes it hard for me to buy that he was a British soldier. It’s a nitpick, but it was kind of odd.
Thankfully, the other elements of the film are very well done. Of course with the cast that this film has, the acting is top notch. Colin Firth does a fantastic job playing a restrained and damaged individual haunted by the events of his past. He initially shows it very well with just a few expressions before finally taking command of the film later on. Jeremy Irvine also portrays the character with a great deal of believability, conveying the brutality that his character goes through in a really subtle manner. As usual, Hiroyuki Sanada does a fantastic job as Takashi Nagase, the Japanese officer responsible for the inhumane treatment of Eric Lomax, and Tanroh Ishida does an equally as good a job portraying the younger version of the character during the flashbacks.
The film does shine the most during the flashbacks and the second half, once the confrontation occurs. It feels like the points when the film is the most inspired and it shows through the filmmaking. The cinematography is beautiful, the production design is incredible and the dramatic heft of the history is pulled off with grace and respect, without ever feeling exploitative or sentimental. The score by two-time Oscar nominee, David Hirschfelder is low-key to say the least, with long stretches of the film either playing the music very softly or not at all, but when it swells up, it works wonders.
The Railway Man is a somber, modest, but ultimately rewarding drama, in which the outstanding performances more than elevate the somewhat uneven script. It may move a bit slow for some, but once it’s all said and done, you’ll be glad you went through it. With a tighter screenplay, the film really could have been an amazing film, but as is, it is really good. It is a flawed, but well-intentioned and impeccably made film that should satisfy history buffs, war movie fans and those interested in seeing a realistic, character-driven drama.
Side Note: Speaking of WWII films, there three additional films of that genre coming out this year (aside from the already released and disappointing Monuments Men). First there’s Walking with the Enemy, which is currently in a limited release. Then in November, there will be David Ayer’s penned and directed ensemble film, Fury. To top it all off, with probably the most interesting one, is Unbroken. The film is directed by Angelina Jolie and written by the Coen brothers (with earlier drafts written by William Nicholson and Richard LaGravenese). It’s based on the book of the same name, which is about the life of Italian-American Olympic athlete and POW survivor, Louis Zamperini. Unbroken is slated for a December 25th release.