It all starts innocently enough, with a man meeting a woman aboard a train, and charming her with his knowledge of railroad stations and schedules and whatnot.
But there’s much more to the title character in The Railway Man, a heartfelt but muddled examination of the true-life struggle of a former British prisoner of war still haunted by psychological demons stemming from World War II.
“I’m not a train spotter. I’m a railway enthusiast,” says Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) upon meeting his future wife, Patti (Nicole Kidman), while commuting through Europe decades after his stint as an Army officer stationed in Singapore during a bloody battle with Japanese troops.
Shortly after their marriage, however, Eric’s behavior becomes unstable as he begins having nightmares about his wartime experiences, and specifically his encounters with an Imperial Army officer (Tanroh Ishida) who held him captive and tortured him for his refusal to cooperate with traitorous demands.
From there, the story is split between flashbacks to the war — where Jeremy Irvine (Great Expectations) plays a younger version of Eric, showing both how he acquired his affinity for trains and the source of his mental instability — and the present day, when a frustrated Patti calls on one of Eric’s wartime buddies (Stellan Skarsgard) for help. Eventually, all sides agree that confronting the demons is the best way to bring closure for Eric.
The film, which is based on a memoir by Lomax, starts slowly but picks up a little as its chronology jumbles, which offers an intriguing perspective on a World War II conflict with which some American audiences might not be familiar.
Firth and Irvine each bring depth to their portrayals of Eric, allowing his past and present to connect, especially in the quieter moments. Kidman’s role seems trumped-up by comparison, as she’s relegated to an innocent bystander who disappears during key dramatic stretches.
Deliberately paced and downbeat, the film offers some moderate suspense and moments of genuine poignancy, but tries too hard to elicit tears.
The Railway Man is a well-intentioned glimpse into post-traumatic stress disorder before it became part of the common vernacular. Yet it’s more difficult to convey the horrors of war that linger in the mind rather than on a battlefield, and that’s a struggle the film ultimately can’t reconcile.