Based on Eric Lomax's autobiography of the same name, The Railway Man is a contemplative film about the damage Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome inflicted on him for decades after his torture at the hands of the Japanese at a prisoner-of-war camp. The title refers not only to the love Lomax held for anything related to railways but also to his coincidental imprisonment in a POW camp where the prisoners were responsible for building the Burma Railway, a job so difficult that, as Lomax puts it, only punishing slave labor could accomplish.
When we first meet Lomax (Colin Firth), he is middle-aged and living in Scotland. There he whiles away the time traveling British rail lines and attending veterans meetings, both of which he manages to do without ever engaging with other people. When Lomax has a romantic encounter with Patti (Nicole Kidman) on a train, his decision to share the news at one of these meetings surprises Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård), a fellow vet and his former superior. It's the first glimmer of hope that Lomax might come out of his self-imposed solitude since he's returned from the war. Unfortunately, even his eventual marriage to Patti can't heal the broken Lomax, who suffers through horrific PTSD-related flashbacks and violent hallucinatory episodes, bottling it all up against the advice of his wife, a former wartime nurse.
Director Jonathan Teplitzky does an admirable job of tackling a difficult story to dramatize, the internal conflict of a man all but destroyed by torture, one who stubbornly refuses to share his experience with anyone save the man he holds responsible for his demoralization, former wartime interpreter Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada). The director deftly cuts back and forth between present day and flashbacks where a young Lomax (Jeremy Irvine), Finlay (Sam Reid) and Nagase (Tanroh Ishida) illustrate the harrowing situations the three were forced to play out to their conclusions because of the dehumanizing effect of war, particularly as it played out in World War II's Pacific Theater.
Teplitzky also does his best to imbue The Railway Man with more tension by fictionalizing Lomax's inevitable meeting with the regretful Nagase, having the two improvise a role reversal in which the British soldier holds his former captor prisoner. But there's a listlessness to the film that Teplitzky never manages to completely overcome. The movie is buoyed by fine performances from the entire cast, most of all, Firth and Sanada. At their initial meeting, a penitent Nagase confesses to Lomax that his job as a tour guide at the abandoned Kempetai Prison Camp is meant to atone for his part in the "tragedy of war." Lomax responds:
Lomax: The what?
Nagase: The tragedy of war.
Lomax: No, the crime! The crime of war.
It's a highly charged confrontation that represents The Railway Man at its darkest, with Teplitzky intimating Lomax's desire for revenge without completely fudging the facts concerning how Lomax and Nagase actually met.
It's still not enough to add the necessary juice to jazz up The Railway Man, however. Despite the intriguing storyline, expert direction, lush and visually intriguing photography by DP Garry Phillips, and uniformly fine performances led by Firth at his most commanding, The Railway Man is a victim of its character's own internalized struggle. It's a war movie where the battlefield is one of the mind, and I'm not sure that any effort to film it would ever fully capture the horror Lomax went through.