The Railway Man’ is a stale take on a true story

Negase (Hiroyuki Sanada) confronts the sins of his past in The Railway Man.
Mike D'Angelo

Two stars

The Railway Man Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Hiroyuki Sanada. Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky. Rated R. Opens Friday.

Adapted from Eric Lomax’s 1995 memoir about his horrific experiences during World War II and his painful efforts to come to terms with them decades later, The Railway Man never feels remotely credible in either era, depicting complex emotions in regrettably simplistic ways. Colin Firth emotes up a storm as Lomax, who’s first seen in 1980, meeting future wife Patti (Nicole Kidman) on a train and delighting her with nerdy minutiae about railway timetables. After they’re wed, however, post-traumatic stress disorder suddenly kicks in, forcing Patti to turn to one of his old war buddies, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård), for the story of what happened to him in the war. The remainder of the film juxtaposes flashbacks of the younger Lomax and Finlay (played by Jeremy Irvine and Sam Reid, respectively), whose regiment is captured by the Japanese in Singapore and forced to help build the Burma Railway, with the older Lomax’s decision to seek out one of his only surviving tormentors, a tour guide named Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada), and turn the tables.

In real life, the reunion between Lomax and Nagase was arranged via correspondence, and there was never any possibility of violence. Director Jonathan Teplitzky (Better Than Sex), however, working from a screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson, struggles to turn Lomax’s journey back East into a thriller, suggesting that he may torture or even kill his old nemesis. To that end, the film also manipulatively withholds the torture flashbacks until the climax, finally showing the young Lomax being savagely beaten and repeatedly waterboarded only when his middle-aged self confronts Nagase. It’s all hokey as hell, and Firth never succeeds in making Lomax more than a twitchy dramatic construct. He still fares much better than Kidman, however, whose prominently billed role amounts only to watching Lomax’s breakdowns with grave concern and staring in disbelief at Finlay between WWII flashbacks. Why an A-list star would accept such a drab, useless role (blackmail? pity?) quickly becomes a more compelling question than any that The Railway Man struggles to pose about the nature of vengeance and forgiveness.

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