[Screen It]

"THE RAILWAY MAN"
(2014) (Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A British WWII vet, plagued by post-traumatic stress disorder, seeks out the Japanese man who was involved in his torture during the war decades ago.
PLOT:
It's 1980 and a number of British WWII veterans, including Eric Lomax (COLIN FIRTH) and Finlay (STELLAN SKARSGARD), routinely get together but rarely talk about their service during the war. That point comes up later when Eric, a railway enthusiast, meets Patti (NICOLE KIDMAN) on a train. The two instantly hit it off and end up married, but his post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in the war starts to take a toll on their marriage. Patti asks Finlay for help, but he replies that they don't talk of such things.

And that's because in 1942 Young Eric (JEREMY IRVINE) and Young Finlay (SAM REID) were working as British engineers in Singapore when that city-state fell to the Japanese. Sent to Thailand, Eric, Finlay and many others were tasked with attempting to build a railroad through the jungle, an endeavor that took the lives of many POWs. When Eric is caught with a makeshift radio, he's subjected to torture by his captors, including translator Nagase Takashi (TANROH ISHIDA).

Back in the present and learning that Nagase (HIROYUKI SANADA) is still alive, Eric sets out to find and confront the man, not fully aware of what he'll do when he comes eye to eye with his former tormentor.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
While in no way intended to minimalize or belittle the service and sacrifice of today's military men and women, many of their predecessors had it much tougher than them during times of war. Not only was technology far inferior -- mainly in terms of communication among their own as well as back home -- but the odds of being captured and tortured for long periods of time were much greater than nowadays.

Just as and perhaps even more important, today's soldiers also have support once they return. While there are still bugs in the system in terms of getting ALL of the help they need and deserve, at least such a system is in place. For those who served in Korea and especially WWII you were simply supposed to return to your previously scheduled life as if nothing happened and maintain a stiff upper lift as part of the Greatest Generation.

Of course, we now publically know what so many family members back then knew existed and that such men suffered just as much post traumatic stress disorder as those who followed in their boots many decades later. Although my dad (thankfully) didn't see combat during his service in WWII, he wouldn't elaborate much about seeing buddies crash into the end of aircraft carriers that suddenly pitched too far up in the seas. And my wife's uncle who survived the Normandy invasion teared up but said little more upon me informing him I had just seen "Saving Private Ryan" back when it came out.

Yet, you occasionally hear stories of former enemies who met years or decades later where the victim forgave his tormentor and a new friendship was forged. It takes a special sort of person to pull that off, whereas most of us would want to get revenge. Such a story plays out in "The Railway Man," the movie adaptation of the best-selling 1995 autobiography of the same name by Eric Lomax.

He was a British Army officer who was sent to a Japanese POW camp in 1942 -- after the fall of Singapore -- where he was subjected to being forced into slave labor in the building of the Burma Railway during which time he was also tortured. There's no doubt he suffered from PTSD, a condition exacerbated by being British (and thus even more reserved than Americans back then).

His tale plays out over two time periods in this film that's directed by Jonathan Teplitzky from Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson's adaptation of Lomax's book. Part of that involves his existence in 1980 and the meeting of his future wife (played by Nicole Kidman), with no mention that he left his then current wife of 35 years for her.

Kidman's character tries to discover and exercise the demons that are obviously plaguing him, but he won't talk about it, a reaction initially shared by his friend and fellow former captor (played here by Stellan Skarsgard). The latter eventually gives up some details that lead to scenes from the earlier time period when the protagonist (played by Jeremy Irvine) and friend (Sam Reid) end up as those POWs, tormented by the soldiers, officers and even the official translator (Tanroh Ishida).

Back in the present, Eric eventually learns that the translator is still alive (played by Hiroyuki Sanada) and thus heads off to confront him, no less in the exact spot of their previous encounters. With everything leading up to that dramatic encounter, the question remains about what could happen. Would it be the right man? Will Lomax get his revenge? Or will he go all Nelson Mandela and forgive his former tormentor?

It's essentially an easy lay-up or even slam dunk for the filmmakers. Yet, the way in which things unfold (the back and forth temporal shifts) and the manner in which Teplitzky guides the story results in a dull and mediocre experience. Yes, Firth is quite good playing a man who's bottled up his emotions for decades, Kidman is solid as his patient but determined wife, and Sanada believably plays a man who must contend with the ramifications of his past acts.

But it's just so surprisingly and disappointingly listless that you ultimately don't really care. Trust me, I wanted to, especially considering my secondhand connection to people who served during that same period and empathy for those who didn't get the proper "coming home" care. Despite the setup, though, it just didn't manage to engage me (any surviving veterans or spouses from that time might have a decidedly different reaction, although just by default).

I won't give away the ending, but will say the follow-up to that might have made for a more interesting film, at least in terms of how this one plays out. Not horrible but simply dramatically inert despite the premise and parts in play, "The Railway Man" never leaves the station and thus rates as only a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed March 31, 2014 / Posted April 18, 2014


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