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New Release Review - The Railway Man

A WWII veteran seeks out the Japanese interpreter who aided his torturers.

Directed by: Jonathan Teplitzky
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard, Jeremy Irvine, Tanroh Ishida


In 1980, railway enthusiast Eric Lomax (Firth) encounters a stranger, Patti (Kidman), on a train journey and immediately falls in love. After employing his knowledge of train schedules to seek her out again, Eric eventually weds Patti. The couple's married bliss is cut short, however, when Eric begins to behave increasingly strange, growing cold towards his wife. Patti seeks out Eric's longtime friend, Finlay (Skarsgard), who spent time in captivity with Eric after the 1942 British surrender of Singapore to the invading Japanese forces. Finlay tells Patti of the tortures Eric (played by Irvine in flashback) endured and reveals that he is aware of the current location of one of the Japanese men responsible. When Eric learns this, he sets off for revenge.
Based on a true story, The Railway Man feels like a mashup of three completely different movies, only one of which is ultimately successful.
The movie opens in Richard Curtis territory with a "meet cute" between Eric and Patti. The idea of a trainspotter using his particular knowledge of railway schedules to stalk the woman he loves could have made an interesting film all of its own and could be tailored to either a romantic comedy or a psychological thriller. Here it's handled unconvincingly, rushing through Eric and Patti's burgeoning romance in the opening 15 minutes. It seems awkwardly contrived that Patti only learns of her husband's troubles after the wedding, as though she had never spent any substantial time with Eric beforehand. Kidman is badly miscast and her character's dowdy wardrobe can't disguise the actress' Hollywood glamour. She's simply not convincing as someone who would aggressively hit on an awkward and considerably older trainspotter, even one as handsome as Firth.
After this setup the movie takes a dramatic shift in tone when Eric's problems become apparent. Miscasting rears its ugly head once more as we're asked to accept the heavily accented Swedish actor Skarsgard as a Scotsman. Even the actor who plays him as a young man affects Skarsgard's Nordic lilt. How nobody found this odd on set is extremely puzzling. This section is set in 1980 but everyone looks, acts and speaks as though it's still wartime Britain. We've come to expect this from American portrayals of Britain, a non-existent world of afternoon tea and tweed, but it's baffling that a British film would make this mistake.
It's only the flashback sequences that work on anything approaching a satisfying level. It's essentially a grittier modern take on Bridge on the River Kwai and Irvine is excellent in his role as the youthful Lomax, perfectly imitating Firth's distinctive affectations. The torture sequences, however, seem a little toned down compared to the real life atrocities and heavily feature waterboarding in what seems like a cheap attempt at poignancy.
Ultimately, The Railway Man's greatest enemy is its linear storytelling. Had we opened with Eric confronting and intimidating his one-time oppressor (played impressively by Sanada in 1980 and not so impressively by Ishida in 1942) and then worked backwards to reveal his motivations it would have been a lot more effective, particularly given we know, even if the story is new to us, how things will eventually pan out.
5/10


Eric Hillis

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