When not in romantic leading man mode, Colin Firth has made a career out of playing damaged characters.
The Railway Man adds to this body of work with a remarkable performance as Eric Lomax, a young British soldier captured by the Japanese in World War 11 and put to work on the ‘Death Railway’ running through Thailand and Burma.
Eric was one of the ‘lucky’ ones who survived the experience, and on his return to the UK and civilian life he never talked about the appalling conditions he and his fellow POWs had had to endure, or the torture he had been subjected to. But such things refuse to just disappear and after meeting and marrying the love of his life, Patricia (Nicole Kidman), Eric’s nightmare’s pointed to terrible things in his past he could not escape.
It was through Patricia’s support and gentle coaxing that Eric found the strength to return to the POW camp where he had suffered agonising abuse and to confront his chief abuser, Takashi Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada). This act proved to be Eric’s salvation for by finally facing his demons he ultimately exorcised them.
This film, based on Eric’s autobiography, is directed with great attention to period detail (in both look and the speech and actions of the main characters) by Jonathan Teplitzky and moves seamlessly both through time and locations — switching between the past at the hellhole of the camp in the far East and the present in Eric and Patricia’s modest and very normal home at Berwick-upon-Tweed.
Firth and Kidman bring great grace to their roles but it is the performance of Jeremy Irvine as the younger Eric that really stands out. We see him first as a youthful, enthusiastic soldier, besotted with trains and train timetables who, through the experiences that define him, becomes a silent hero, courageously enduring beatings, water boarding and being caged like an animal. He seems timorous and naïve but shows a strength of will that enables him to stay alive while many of his friends at the camp do not. This could be the defining role for him, marking his transformation from teen actor to mature performer.
The film is well crafted and is nicely paced and never drags, but it does at times suffer from a certain sense of worthiness — it’s dark subject matter could have done with a little lightness or levity, just to lift the mood.