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Review: The Railway Man (2014)

The Railway Man (2014)

Directed by: Jonathan Teplitzky

Premise: Set in post-World War II England, a former British army officer (Colin Firth) falls in love with a nurse (Nicole Kidman) but soon after their marriage it becomes clear that he suffers from post-traumatic stress due to his experiences as a prisoner of war.

What Works: The Railway Man is structured as a frame narrative; the film begins with the former army officer in late middle age meeting and romancing the woman who becomes his wife. When they are married, the symptoms of PTSD emerge and the story reverts to the past, dramatizing his experience as a prisoner of the war under the Japanese. The final portion of The Railway Man returns to the present in which the former military officer revisits the prison camp, now a war museum, and confronts his former torturer, who runs the exhibit. The Railway Man is at its best when it deals directly with the events in the Pacific. The extent to which the picture works is largely to do with the central performances by Jeremy Irvine and Colin Firth as the younger and older incarnations of the main character. The performances of both actors are linked together in subtle ways so that it is believable that they are the same person and Firth’s performance effectively reflects the trauma that his character experienced as a younger man. To Firth’s credit he does not go over the top with the sentimentality or the psychological trauma but plays the role with restraint and the suffering of his past percolates under the surface of his performance. This restraint is most apparent in the final portion of the story as he confronts his former captor played by Hiroyuki Sanada and the Japanese actor gives the other great performance of this film. Like Firth, Sanada is also restrained but his guilt is apparent on the corners of his performance and gradually reveals itself over the course of the film. Although The Railway Man dramatizes events of the past, historical filmmaking is usually about using the past to comment upon the present and this film makes subtle—and some not so subtle—connections between the experiences of World War II veterans and of those returning from the contemporary wars in the Middle East. That relevance gives The Railway Man some added thematic and dramatic weight and the film is a sensitive portrayal of those issues. 

What Doesn’t: The Railway Man suffers from some ill-advised storytelling decisions. The filmmakers tell their story as a frame narrative but this isn’t necessarily the best structure for the movie and it might have been more successful if it were told chronologically. As it is presented in the movie, the crux of the story is that the former British military officer is given hope to heal himself and come to some reconciliation because of his relationship with his wife, played by Nicole Kidman. The problem is that Kidman is wasted in this movie. She has nothing to do and she does not figure into the story or into the main character’s struggle and rehabilitation in a meaningful way. The real central relationship of The Railway Man is between the British soldier and his Japanese captor but the filmmakers don’t get to that until well into the running time of the picture and in the portion that takes place during the war that relationship is unclear, with the captor failing to take a more active role in the British soldier’s suffering. The Railway Man also goes awry in its attempt to visualize the character’s flashbacks. At times the filmmakers portray the middle aged version of the British officer being attacked and beaten by his Japanese captors and some of these delusions look absurd and are more likely to elicit laughter or confusion than dread or sympathy.

Bottom Line: The Railway Man has a few very good performances and the movie does tell a compelling story. The filmmakers’ approach to the narrative is flawed and ultimately causes the movie to miss the point but there is enough right about The Railway Man to merit a mild recommendation.

Episode: #493 (June 1, 2014)