As awards season beckons, true event dramas are the order of the day. Factor in a remarkable tale starring Colin Firth as a former Japanese POW and you’ve got a product ageing juries are destined to lap up. And that is the problem with The Railway Man. It feels too much like a manufactured product. As dowdy Eric Lomax (Firth) seemingly finds love for the first time in his life with his new wife Patricia (Nicole Kidman), he begins to suffer violent flashbacks to his traumatic ordeal in the war while forced to work on the infamous Burma (or Death) Railway. Offered a chance of revenge by his former comrade Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård), Lomax discovers his former sadistic torturer is still alive, and travels to modern-day Burma to seek justice and resolution.
Despite successfully tugging at the heart strings The Railway Man is too contrived and emotionally shallow to leave any lasting impression. The story itself is a fascinating one of real personal and social intrigue, but this one-sided telling of it – the Japanese characters may as well have been cut out of cardboard – is nothing more than functional. Flashback sequences to Lomax’s time on the railway are fairly uninspired generic POW fare and, despite a solid turn by Jeremy Irvine as the young incarnation of Lomax, the decision to cast a different actor to play a man a mere twenty years younger is a poor one, creating a degree of detachment between the already isolated stories and robbing us of an opportunity to see Firth getting stuck into some interesting material. The most promising scenes are centred around Firth and Kidman as the troubled couple coping with this complex man’s ravaged psyche, but these are annoyingly brief. Aside from an incredibly gooey opening that is then harrowingly barbed with genuine pain and bitterness, we barely get a chance to delve into their relationship. The talents of Kidman and Skarsgård are particularly wasted. Visually stunning, the cinematography is exemplary – finding some beautiful earthy colours and crisp minimalist compositions in both Lomax’s home life and his tortuous tour of Burma. These sumptuous visuals plus the heft of Firth, Kidman and Skarsgård give the film a false effect of importance – but ultimately it is nowhere near as impactful as it purports to be. Equally, the storytelling is consciously engineered to strike all the right emotive notes, but is a little ungainly, constantly leaping around with no real grace or rhythm. The sporadic dark moments of torture and violence hint at the potential psychological depths to be examined – but with nothing more than shallow characters to pin our investment on they pass by without the intended impact. Ultimately it’s all very unnatural, trying far too hard to dredge up the tears and pathos to evince any genuine emotion – but the basic plot is nevertheless a compelling one capable of enough broad sentimentality and redemptive satisfaction to draw you in for two hours. A serviceable tearjerker, but no more than that. Bring on the awards nominations. ★★★☆☆