Having been so engrossed by Eric Lomax’s autobiography of the same name, I could hardly wait for the chance to see it brought to life on-screen. How bitterly disappointed I was. I felt cheated out of the terrifying, exciting, challenging and ultimately rewarding story I had anticipated. I hate being one of those people who complains that “the film is nothing like the book” but in this case it felt like it was just an unhappy coincidence that they shared a title. I am unsure as to how it is possible to take a story of a brutal prisoner of war camp, post-traumatic stress disorder, romance and forgiveness and suck the life out of it but somehow The Railway Man manages to accomplish this in its 116 long minutes.
Colin Firth stars as Lomax – a man so haunted by his time as a prisoner of the Kempetai that insomnia, flashbacks and erratic behaviour have become a way of life. The film trudges along, recounting the tale of Eric’s journey from Singapore to Edinburgh back to Singapore. Captured as a boy of sixteen (Jeremy Irvine plays the younger Eric) and sent to work in the horrendous Thai-Burma railway line as a prisoner, Lomax endured throughout the most violent and inhumane of treatment. That he survived truly is a testament and a reminder of the sacrifices made even by those who managed to return home. Irvine does a wonderful job of mimicking Firth, right down to the way he chews his lip. Sadly, this is where my enjoyment ceased.
Firth’s performance is just one of the flaws in this film. Firstly, Lomax was born and raised in Edinburgh and yet no attempt at the accent is ever made by Firth. Secondly, his portrayal is too laboured and ‘worthy’. Yes, he writhes on the floor and screams in trauma as he recalls his inhumane torture at the hands of the Japanese militia but is it convincing? No. It is far too much of a performance. You can almost hear him pleading for awards, given the earnest nature of both the performance and the subject matter.
The casting of Nicole Kidman as his second wife, Patti, is equally frustrating. She continues her rather infuriating habit of whispering her way through a film, all misty-eyed and fretful. There is absolutely no chemistry between the pair whatsoever. It is hard to believe that either would take the leap of faith towards marriage, or why she would want to work at it afterwards. They seem entirely disinterested in each other. Much of Lomax’s story is recalled by his friend Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård – no attempt at an accent there, either) and this seems to be for the sole purpose of giving Skarsgård something to do other than sup pints in the corner of the working men’s club the veterans gather in.
The other major flaw is the plot. Lomax’s story, as it stands, is one of the most amazing things I have ever read. A normal young boy, pushed to the brink of endurance and yet still able to forgive. So why did the writers decide to omit crucial information about his life – for instance, the origins of his railway and engineering enthusiasm or the fact that he was married and had two daughters before meeting Patti – whilst embellishing or completely fabricating other elements? Lomax did not put himself forward to receive a beating in order to spare his comrades nor did he physically confront his captor, Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada, putting in a thankless effort in a cringe worthy stereotype of a role). The disease and starvation he suffered, and the wonderful catharsis found in the beautiful exchange of letters between the two men in middle age are equally if not more compelling than the fantasy constructed on-screen. Why anyone would feel the need to exaggerate or lie about Lomax’s life is confusing to say the least.
On a more positive note, I had no problem with the non-chronological structure of the film – anything to break up the tedium of the worst screen marriage to date. Although, the flashback structure is slightly infuriating in that it feels like we are only glimpsing little nuggets of information and without ever really getting to the heart of any specific episode.
Given the rich source material, The Railway Man could have delivered so much more. Crucial details left out and falsehoods added in give the film a cold, detached feel and makes for rather haphazard character formation. The film leaves you wanting more … but not in the conventional sense of the phrase.