THERE is a great deal going on in The Railway Man, so much so that when the film suddenly veers off into the territory of revenge thriller it doesn’t come as too much of a surprise.
Colin Firth, still enjoying huge post-King’s Speech popularity, is Eric Lomax, a moustachioed eccentric and railway enthusiast who meets and marries a fellow traveller. But new wife Patricia (Nicole Kidman) discovers a new side to her man as his deeply suppressed war memories tumble forth.
When he attacks a debt collector with a Stanley knife she realises just how traumatised he is and seeks help from his old comrades. Cue flashbacks to the war, the Burma-Siam death railway, imprisonment under the Japanese and the source of Eric’s nightmares.
Patricia tries to unpick Eric’s memories, many of them wrapped up in the beatings and torture he suffered at the hands of his captors. For Eric it all becomes too much. He must face his demons. And one demon in particular is still alive…
It is Kidman who is top-billed in this slow-moving tale but it is the mature and haunting performance from Colin Firth as the older Eric that drives it.
He only seems to wake up from his zombie state when he returns – and he does so in definitive stages, first mentally, then physically – to the war he knew.
The film is littered with excellent performances throughout, both in support and in miniature.
Jeremy (War Horse) Irvine is the younger Eric and perfectly captures Firth’s physicality and inflexions.
Then there is the as usual excellent Stellan Skarsgard, who appears as his similarly stricken pal.
But the key to this story of revenge, redemption and rehabilitation is Hiroyuki Sanada as Eric’s nemesis. The script (by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson, from Lomax’s memoir) could easily direct audiences towards a virulent anti-Japanese stance if the material was handled in a different way. Instead, via a roundabout route, it opts for catharsis.
The weak link appears to be director Jonathan Teplitzky. He demonstrates a steady if unexciting approach to the story, which only truly gathers pace when the older Eric is urged to confront the past he has buried.