Eric (Colin Firth) meets Patti (Nicole Kidman) on one of the trains that crisscross across the British Isles. As they talk, they begin to realize they have much in common and are soon married. But just as everything in Eric’s life seems to be coming together, he learns a startling bit of information that threatens to derail everything that is so right – the Japanese officer who made his existence at a Japanese POW camp during World War II is still alive and leading tours of the Burma–Thai railway Eric and many of the British POWs helped build under their oppressive Japanese captors. Essentially, his nightmares are still living and Eric must decide whether he should go back and confront his former tormentor.
Thus begins “The Railway Man”, a new film with a great cast, very good production quality, but a tried and true story that has been told by better, more capable filmmakers.
Colin Firth plays Eric, a railway enthusiast who spends most of his days studying timetables and sitting quietly in the background while a group of prisoner of war camp survivors sit and drink. Firth is quietly intense, always staring into the distance as Eric contemplates the horrors of his earlier life. Or perhaps he is trying to beat the memories back, concentrating on the timetables. Either way, he seems to spend a lot of time lost in thought.
Riding the train one day, he meets Patti and they begin to talk. As Patti learns more about the railway nerd, she begins to warm Eric up and they start to have a conversation. In most films, this is the “meet-cute” moment, but that term seems more appropriate for fluffy rom-coms starring Katherine Heigl or Sarah Jessica Parker. “The Railway Man” is a much more serious movie. Soon, after they meet, Eric and Patti get married.
Kidman seems a little reserved as Patti. She starts to learn of Eric’s demons on their wedding night and doesn’t react to them, as most women I know would, until a lot later. She seems a lot more accepting of these problems, almost as though she is waiting for them to work themselves out. This is a nod to the famous (stereotypical?) ‘stiff upper lip’ which would work if we were watching, for instance, a documentary. When a camera is capturing the outside of a character, and in the case, a British character, I would expect to see the surface of the person, the person’s thoughts, struggles, etc. remaining somewhat out of sight. But in a dramatic re-telling, the filmmaker has a certain amount of license to show Patti yelling at her husband to get off his arse and do something other than moping through his life.
The point when Patti has finally had enough is handled well and in a slightly different way than you might expect. It is a nice touch.
And Kidman brings some nice, subtle emotion to the role.
Stellan Skarsgaard plays Finlay, Eric’s confidant and the former leader of his regiment. Both were in the POW camp together, both made it out alive, both deal with the demons, but in different ways. Skarsgaard is also very subtle, and shows the emotion in a tight-lipped way.
In fact all the performances in this film are perhaps too subtle. Clearly, director Jonathan Teplitzky (“The Burning Man”, TV’s “Rake”) has asked the actors to play their roles this way; normally this would work and I would hail the performances as “realistic”. But there is a fine line between “realistic” and “boring”. And Teplitzky brings it too far in the wrong direction. Eric is a man so consumed by fear and guilt he is living a sheltered and reclusive life. He has nightmares, sees his demons at unexpected times, yet he doesn’t seem to react enough. The same could be said of all four leads, they simply seem to have so little energy. But in Patti’s case, it seems to work.
Because the movie is set in two different time periods, other actors play young Eric, young Finlay and young Takeshi. These actors are all good.
The narrative of this story is inherently dramatic and moving, but Teplitzky doesn’t manage to extract all of the emotion inherent in these characters or the actor’s performances. This makes the film less powerful than it otherwise could have been. Instead of a possible successor to “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, we have an acceptable BBC television production.
Which is fine if you aren’t spending money to see the film in a theater.